When Shalmali Nalawade was 11 years old, she saw someone toss a big bag of rubbish into the river Mutha from Warje bridge in Pune.
This triggered a strong emotional reaction from Shalmali, who became determined to do something about such callous behaviour.
“My daughter asked why people are dirtying the river and could anything get done to stop it,” says Sachin Nalawade, her father and an entrepreneur.
“We have homeschooled Shalmali. And we always ask her to think by herself and give suggestions for any problems. Shalmali said she would stand at the bridge and stop people from doing so,” Sachin said.
Sachin said the parents agreed and Shalmali did succeed in convincing some people not to pollute the water body.
“However, the question was how long during the entire day, she would stop people? For how many days? And was it a feasible solution? We suggested she try cleaning the river instead,” Sachin said.
Which is how Shalmali became one of the youngest members of a volunteer group working on wetland conservation in the Mutha river.
“We realised a Non-governmental Organisation (NGO), Jeevitnadi, is working every Sunday for river cleanliness along the banks of the River Mutha. We decided to take her and work along with other senior members,” Sachin said.
However, her mother Mugdha says the ‘stand by the bridge and convince people’ was a test of Shalmali’s dedication. “I wanted to make sure that she is serious about what she wants to do. I tried and tested different ways until I was convinced,” she adds.
Mugdha said her daughter was very excited the day she realised she would be joining Jeevitnadi for river cleanliness.
For almost three years now, Shalmali has dedicatedly gone for the cleanliness drives.
“She’s unstoppable. There were times when we could not take her to the river cleanliness. After a couple of disappointments, she decided to cycle her way on Sunday mornings,” Mugdha said.
Shalmali, now 14, says, “I was aware that people throw rubbish in the river. But that personal moment of a person throwing the rubbish angered me, and I wanted to do something about it. I want to see a clean river, and I feel like walking on a garbage dump on the banks.”
Shalmali says she has found all kinds of rubbish, including tomatoes, chappals, alcohol bottles, clothes and other waste. “There was also a sofa at the site,” she adds.
“I have done a course on ornithology, knowing about insects, studying botany and other aspects of environmental conservation. There are multiple aspects of conservation that I am exploring along with the river,” the teenager adds.
Over time, Shalmali also influenced family members, and over a dozen of her friends have also involved their family members in the drive.
Janhavi Barve is one of those class students who joined the cause with Shalmali. “I was in class V and did not know much about the river. It was during a bicycle ride with 15 others when Shalmali took us and showed the site,” she says.
Janhavi said she started going for the cleanliness drives since then. “I like to swim, and it would be nice to see a clean river in which I could swim,” she adds.
A class IX student, Diksha Tidke, is another friend of Shalmali who wants to see a clean river and people free from diseases. “I like cleanliness and am also fond of animals in the water. The river provides us water, and we should have natural sources for our survival and prevent water scarcity,” she says.
Diksha said the river is the most reliable source of water. “Many people are living near the river and suffer from the polluted water. Cleaning the rivers would help reduce the risk of diseases among them,” she adds.
Aditi Deodhar, one of the founders of Jeevitnadi NGO, said, “It is nice to see curious and young minds joining the cause. Shalmali’s parents have been very open, allowing their daughter to experiment in choosing her career path.”
Aditi says the teenager has good clarity of her thoughts and maturity to decide what she wants to do in future. “Other members in the group, with expertise in other aspects like birds, plants and land restoration, are helping and guiding her whenever needed. Shalmali is already documenting some studies and observations,” she adds.
Recollecting an incident, Dharmaraj Patil an ornithologist said, “Shalmali even participated in day-long fast when river activist Professor GD Agarwal passed away in 2018 to support Agarwal’s demand of not constructing dams on the river Ganga.”
Dharmaraj said Shalmali has extraordinary interest, good observational and documenting skills which is uncommon for teenagers at her age.
So here is a young inspiration for us all, and we are sure the river will be that much better thanks to these efforts.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)