As a travel and tourism professional, how do you explain away the filth and garbage all over our country? This was the dilemma that was eating away at Neeraj. Very often in his work he would be confronted by the hurtful observations of visitors to India that the country was ridden with garbage. This hurt in pride deeply, as it would for a lot us who consider ourselves patriotic Indians. But unlike those that simply point fingers at the system, he decided to get his hands dirty, literally and figuratively.
Around 2007, Neeraj, who had recently switched careers from being an engineer to a travel and tour operator, got together a bunch of his close friends and formed a non-profit organisation called Expeditions for Cause (EFC). Their single aim was to curb littering in Delhi-NCR and beyond. It was challenging enough that Neeraj had to manage a new travel and tourism business but he was determined to set up the EFC too. Convincing people to work towards a common goal for no monetary benefit could have seemed like a waste of time but Neeraj juggled his work and his passion efficiently. Long before the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign was launched, the EFC began cleanliness drives around the city.
In 2014, in the aftermath of the ‘Swachh Bharat’ initiative, Neeraj and the EFC received a lot of media attention and public support. This prompted them to go deeper into the issue by doing an extensive survey of over 150 tier 1 and tier 2 cities—they wanted to understand if the problem was systemic and if so, what the pain points were. The survey revealed a very disturbing pattern: as a society, we had become compulsive consumers. We were buying things that we did not need. These things came in attractive plastic packaging, and overconsumption led to the generation of gargantuan amounts of plastic. This plastic eventually found its way to our streets, in our rivers, and in our forests. The Nagar Palika was kept so busy trying to collect the garbage that it left them with almost no time or resource for waste management. Neeraj consulted some of their representatives to figure out how they could assist the municipality in doing their work. In the end, EFC came up with a solution called ‘Fenkiye Mat Sadak Par’ (Don’t throw garbage on the street).
The campaign came from the understanding that while the problem of littering was deep-rooted, most people wanted to do the right thing. However, they lacked infrastructure. In this case, it meant there simply weren’t enough bins placed in the city. Neeraj organised the distribution of over 3 million portable dustbin bags for people to dispose of waste. Strategically placed in locations especially around markets, they helped reduce litter visibly. While organizing this drive, another problem of excessive use of single-use plastic and polythene bags for shopping became obvious. This gave him the impetus to start an ancillary drive called project 'Theli'. Waste fabric would be collected via donations and this fabric would be converted into cloth bags to be distributed for free to shoppers. Further, the bags would provide employment for the women who would stitch them. This campaign continues to date.
One success led to another, and EFC organically began working in other areas such as education for underprivileged students. Not wanting to start yet another NGO for the same purpose they got talking to various organisations and social workers to understand where they could be helpful. High dropout rates, as much as 10 to 17% after primary school, turned out to be a big concern. Neeraj and his group came up with a unique solution to tackle this.
They started by organising birthday parties and eventually sports functions and annual days. This gave the students the semblance of an actual school. Excursions were organised where the students would meet people from different professions. Inspired by this, the kids would look forward to out-of-the-box careers once they completed their education. Soon the dropout rates fell drastically.
Another ongoing EFC project is an initiative to save water in urban homes called ‘Half Tap’. By putting a nudge sticker behind a tap, it reminds people to open the tap halfway, thus saving billions of litres of water.
Neeraj’s enthusiasm for his projects is contagious. The group mostly uses their own resources or the help of friends and family who gladly volunteer or raise funds. In this world where things are driven by greed it makes one wonder how someone can dedicate so much time and effort to do social service. It is the satisfaction of giving back to society that drives Neeraj and his friends. They are the silent urban warriors who have decided that it is better to take action rather than sit and complain.
Most of us have a very limited concept of patriotism. Just standing for the National Anthem or commending our armed forces doesn’t make us patriots. Instead, working for the betterment of our fellow countrymen is a far more constructive approach. Neeraj took his hurt from the criticism of his country and channelled it into something constructive. We at Giving Circle commend this true son of India.
Giving Circle is a platform where we commend and encourage urban warriors like Neeraj who are giving back to their communities and their country. While they have taken the lead, we can support them with our skilled time, material donations or with funds so that they can scale up. Alternatively, you can start your own social project too with the ecosystem that’s readily provided by Giving Circle.