DEHRADUN: A little over three years before Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched with much fanfare his “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, on October 2, 2014, a bunch of MAD teenagers in Dehra Dun under the leadership of 17-year old Abhijay Negi had embarked upon a far more sweeping ‘Swachh Dehra Dun Abhiyan’ in this capital of Uttarakhand and its environs.

The two campaigns, however, have yielded contrasting results. While the high-profile ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, despite the hype and the official backing, seems to have been reduced to just a photo-op media show, the low-profile ‘Swachh Dehra Dun Movement’ that completes four years on June 8 have really done wonders giving a cleaner look to the localities and the market areas swept by them.

The anagram MAD means “Making a Difference”. Today, four years later, there are hundreds of unselfish MADDIANS, mostly teenagers, imbued with the spirit of selfless service, who are making the difference by being the difference themselves. Every Sunday, they gather at a site, chosen for the clean-up drive that week, equipped with gloves, garbage bags, brooms, portable bins and cleaning implements.

More important than the vastly improved conditions on the ground that MAD has brought about is the 180 degree makeover in the mindset of the youngsters who now look forward to devoting their Sundays exclusively to the numerous campaigns being undertaken by MAD than expending their time on frivolous activities that they had hitherto done. MAD has now given these youngsters mostly from the English medium unaided private schools a new purpose in life. Esprit de corps now permeates the MADDIANS.

In an interview with veteran journalist RAJ KANWAR, Abhijay Negi explains what really inspired him and how in the midst of his Class XII examination preparations, he took such an unusual step.

What was the spark that suddenly made you take such an extraordinary decision at a tender age?

One afternoon in January 2011, I was surfing channels hoping to find a song or two to relieve my boredom, when suddenly I stopped at Aaj Tak Hindi news channel that was then showing a documentary on the tragic plight of the victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy. The heartrending tale of the sufferers overwhelmed my sensibilities. For that moment, I forgot about my ongoing examination preparations and wanted to do something that would alleviate their anguish. Our plans to raise funds for the Bhopal victims remained stillborn owing to the numerous logistics constraints. However, the urge to be of some help and make a difference continued to disturb me, and that eventually led to the birth of MAD.

How did you attract the first few dozen teenage volunteers? What really inspired those youngsters to join MAD?

“Akele hi chale thay jaanib-e-manzil hum, log judte gaye aur kaarwan ban gaya”. Yes indeed; it was slightly awkward to reach out to everybody when I was just starting with MAD. The seeds of activism were surely sown- but the fruit i.e. our modus operandi was not very clear to me then. Today, we are many hundreds, mostly teenagers, imbued with the spirit of selfless service, determined to work towards making a difference by being the difference ourselves.

What was your first clean-up drive like?

We had our first meeting on June 8, 2011. It was in that meeting that we resolved that we would not take a penny from anyone and make ourselves a pocket-money-funded group. With modest contribution of rupees fifty by each of us, we procured gloves, masks and sacks. Later, of course MAD’s goodwill became so immense that a couple of shopkeepers gave us the gloves at concessional rates.

Did your clean-up drives get any support or cooperation from the residents or the municipal authorities? How did the MADDIANS eventually overcome the indifference of the residents and the apathy of the officialdom?

Even though initially our clean-up drives had become talk-of-the-town with newspapers giving extensive coverage, yet the residents of the selected neighbourhoods stood aloof and watched us with some curiosity and an amused look. However, gradually the thaw of their indifference somewhat melted and seeing our devotion and dedication, some of the residents’ welfare associations started collaborating with us.

But both the state and civic officials not only were apathetic but were also at times somewhat hostile; they worried that our success will reflect on their poor performance. When we first met the Mayor on the garbage disposal issue, he smirked and told us that we should first counsel our own mothers not to dump kitchen and household waste on the road before approaching the Nagar Nigam. When we went to him with a detailed 76-page report identifying 16 garbage hotspots where the issue was not just mothers dumping kitchen waste but a collapse of the system; we were promised action but very little happened. We have written over 30 letters to Nagar Nigam in the past four years, not simply highlighting deficiency but also making positive suggestions and proposing joint plans of action but without any worthwhile response.

Apart from cleaning-up drives, what other projects did MAD take up?

Incidentally, MAD has not undertaken many clean-up drives in the past year. Instead it has switched over to painting murals. Yearly on June 8 (our Foundation Day), we organize a marathon named MADATHON to create awareness about the dying streams of Doon valley. Despite our persistence efforts, we have not been able to bring about any change in government stance.

In the course of past four years, MAD has undertaken more than 115 clean-up and 23 wall transformation campaigns in various parts of the city and its environs. However, its biggest ever clean-up campaign was “Chalo Tapkeshwar”, a temple on the bank of Tamsa Nadi in the Cantonment area. The latest of the four rallies was conducted only last month in which nearly 600 youngsters participated. Tamsa – the only fresh water stream still flowing in the Doon – is horribly polluted, thanks to hundreds of pilgrims who, as a matter of faith, immerse their pooja remnants in the riverbed. Cleaning up the river and its environs turned out to be a Herculean task. Over 50 sacks, weighing nearly 1000 kilograms, of assorted garbage that included dead fish, mixed garbage and huge quantity of polythene had been collected when the day ended. On three earlier occasions, 1000 kilos were collected twice and 1500 kilos garbage once.

Initially, what was the reaction of the parents? Did they not discourage their children from doing the dirty cleaning up?

Speaking for myself, I had not told my parents about MAD at all as I thought they could oppose. They learnt about it through relatives and newspapers and have been most supportive ever since! The cleaning up of the city has become an obsession with us children; in the beginning, our parents were skeptical but soon they became proud of what we were all doing. Now more and more parents and schools are encouraging the youngsters to join the MAD campaign.

How do you manage the activities of the MAD from Jodhpur where you are doing the Law?

Yes. It is difficult indeed as I often find myself sleep-deprived. From Jodhpur, I invest a substantial amount of my time in coordinating things over phone. Surprisingly, the more time I devote to my work at MAD, I perform much better in academics. In the recent VIII semester results, I topped in the batch of 90. My team in Dehra Dun is also very cooperative and enthusiastic. Our coordinator, Shardul Singh Rana is a great help. We have a team of some active members such like Sayyed Manzer, Karan Kapoor, Saurabh Nautiyal, Manvendra Rawat, Himalaya Arnav Ramola, Kashika Mahant, Alok Bhatt to name a few of the two dozen-odd spirited activists.

Why did you feel the need of registering MAD as a society? Do you have any plans to expand your activities to other states and towns? Who are currently your active promoters?

We felt the need to register because we soon realized that we were all growing up and could no longer act as kids cleaning-up the streets. Our models need sustainability. People’s hopes from us are also rising and some well wishers expect us to aim big and we will try. Moreover, having a legal identity will always help us take on the bigger issues. Expanding our area of work to other cities is not on our immediate agenda. But nothing is being ruled out.

Raj Kanwar is Dehra Dun-based veteran journalist and writer.