During her final year of BTech, Tejaswi Podapati was reading a report in The Hindu which stated that her hometown of Ongole in Prakasam district was the third most backward city in what was then a united Andhra Pradesh.
The information hurt her deeply.
“Rather than blaming the government, I wanted to do something about this problem. During my research, I found that filthiness was one of the city’s major drawbacks. Then I read about The Ugly Indian initiative (an anonymous group of volunteers who clean the streets) in Bengaluru and thought why not try this in Ongole. But there were concerns about whether we could get volunteers,” says Tejaswi, in a conversation with The Better India.
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“While my mother was concerned about what society would say if I started cleaning the streets, my father issued his complete support. When I initially asked my friends to join me in this endeavour, 80% said no. I gave this news to my father, who responded by asking me to look at the positive—the fact that 20% said yes—and go with it. If he hadn’t given me this insight, I wouldn’t have ever started this initiative,” she adds.
On October 15, 2015, which is Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s birthday, Tejaswi went with 10 volunteers to a park in Ongole and started cleaning it. Thus, began the Bhoomi Foundation.
Initially, people mocked Tejaswi for her efforts, but she decided to respond with the work the Foundation was doing. Along with her volunteers, she removed all posters, flyers nailed or pasted on walls and tree trunks and cleared the garbage, changing its look completely.
That’s when their ‘One Goal, Clean Ongole’ initiative took off. The same park which was filthy for decades became clean, and the people who mocked them earlier were now appreciating their work.
“Every weekend, I would select a single spot in the city, go there and start cleaning it. That’s how we’ve ended up cleaning 125 spots in and around Ongole. We started with 10 volunteers, but now we have 3500 volunteers,” informs the 25-year-old.
Having said that, the journey wasn’t easy. Once Tejaswi and her volunteers would clean-up the trash at one spot, it would pile up again. However, this would not deter her or the volunteers, who would clean the spot time and again until the littering stopped.
There was also the question of registering the Foundation, but standing in her way was an unhelpful bureaucracy. Although the paperwork for registration takes less than a week, she had to spend three months to finish it. At no point was she willing to sideline her integrity by bribing officials to speed up the registration process.
The 360 km commute from Hyderabad, where she works as a software engineer, was also an issue.
Until two years ago, every Friday evening, she would take the bus to Ongole for the clean-up work. On weeks when she worked on Saturdays, she would take the night bus and reach the town the following morning.
“What drives me is my passion for cleanliness and the amazing work spirit of the volunteers. By the middle of the week, they start asking me questions like ‘what are we going to do next?’, ‘where is our next spot?’, etc. Even if I felt like taking the week off to rest, the passion my volunteers showed would make me decide otherwise,” she says.
In the early days, it was her father, a local businessman, who would help her purchase and collect all the necessary materials, and join in.
“This is how he supported me. Initially, he told me not to seek funds, saying if we go around as a non-profit seeking it, people might think we are doing this for the money. He said ‘your goal of cleaning up this city must not get bogged down in the collection of funds.’ After I got the job, I started to take care of the expenses. Today, I spend 70% of my salary for this purpose,” she says.
In the past two years, however, the Bhoomi Foundation has been working between Hyderabad and Ongole on alternating weekends. They have cleaned 80+ spots in Hyderabad. Most recently, they did a clean-up job under the Hafeezpet Flyover.
Although Tejaswi doesn’t seek donations, she is planning to ask the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation to give her some material. “If I’m spending money, there might come a point when I can’t sustain it. So, I want to approach them for materials,” she adds.
God knows this conscientious citizen can use all the help she needs.
(You can get in touch with the Bhoomi Foundation here on their Facebook page.)
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)