In 2012, when Sanju Soman started an NGO named SARSAS (Save A Rupee Spread a Smile) in Thiruvananthapuram, which aimed at encouraging charity and social work in youngsters, he never thought that it would be the beginning of his unique career.
Almost a decade later, in November 2021, Sanju was selected as one of the 17 young climate leaders from India by the United Nations as part of their campaign ‘We the Change’, for his exceptional work. The campaign aims to showcase climate solutions developed by young Indians to inspire people towards climate action.
As a child, Sanju grew up in Saudi Arabia but always longed to return to his home town in Adoor, Kerala. So, after Class 10, he moved there and pursued his graduation in psychology from SN College. It was during his college days that he started SARSAS, which turned out to be one of the largest youth-led NGOs in the capital city.
“After starting my first NGO, SARSAS, I realised that there are a lot of youngsters who are ready to do social work but they are unable to do so, due to the lack of a proper platform,” says the 28-year-old.
SARSAS raised around Rs 70 lakh over five years to support cancer patients and individuals with renal issues who were from vulnerable communities. Also, under Sanju’s leadership, they were able to create a cohort of over 300 volunteers in the NGO with whom they launched various social projects.
Later in 2013, Sanju led a rainwater harvesting project along with another foundation. His team was able to facilitate the installation of a rooftop rainwater harvesting system in more than 80 households in Malayinkeezhu — a drought-prone region.
In 2014, he joined the Tata Institute of Social Studies (TISS) in Mumbai, to pursue his post graduation in Climate Change and Sustainability Studies.
“I then formed a committee to solve the water shortage in the institute during my second year at TISS, and we installed a rainwater recharge system on the campus,” says Sanju.
A ‘Model Wetland Village’
After completing his post graduation, Sanju joined the Ashoka Trust for research in ecology and the environment (ATREE) and led the Habitat learning project in 2016. There he trained teachers and students of government schools near the Vembanad Lake in Kerala for a period of two years.
Vembanad Lake in the Alappuzha district is the second largest Ramsar wetland site in India and also one of the most diverse and flood vulnerable regions in the State.
He adds, “We mostly engaged with them in teaching the students and teachers about climate change and the importance of habitat conservation with a focus on wetlands, especially the one that they live by.”
This work made him one of the 58 Global school ambassadors from across the world who were chosen by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN-SDSN) to scale up SDG education in schools.
Later, in 2018, in collaboration with ATREE, Sanju conceptualised a project on developing the first ‘model wetland village’ in Muhamma in Alappuzha district of Kerala.
A model wetland village is the concept of making a wetland village sustainable and self-sufficient. This can be achieved by training the people of the village to have an alternative livelihood, cleaning the water bodies, reducing plastic pollution, promoting sustainable tourism, reducing energy demand and streamlining waste management.
“Muhamma is a small village which is also part of the Vembanad-Kol Ramsar wetland site. I have been working there with the community and the local government in making it a model wetland village. We developed a three-year plan to make the panchayat energy efficient, plastic-free, and also to improve the livelihood of people,” Sanju says.
Sanju claims, “The three-year project that started in 2018 is still a work in progress but there have been drastic changes like reduced plastic consumption, increase in tree cover in the area, recovery of canals, improved menstruation practices, etc.”
A social innovation lab
For Sanju’s initiative, a social innovation lab was also set up in Muhamma village, which trained over 150 women from the fishing communities on cloth upcycling. He was also part of an initiative to make Muhamma the first Synthetic sanitary napkin-free village.
Sanju says, “As part of the synthetic sanitary napkin-free village initiative, 40 per cent of the women in the village were provided with cloth pads and menstrual cups at a subsidised cost. Also large-scale awareness drives were conducted on menstrual health.”
Simultaneously, Sanju and his friends started a social enterprise named BHAVA in 2018 to support those women making upcycled goods to sell their products in the market. They succeeded in providing a minimum wage of Rs 5,000/month to around 40 women through this as an additional income. They also launched one of the largest upcycling effort in Kerala and converted around 30,000 kg of cloth waste into usable products.
In the same year, Sanju founded SUSTERA Foundation, an NGO with the aim of training youngsters in climate action, capacity building of local self-government. institutions, and supporting climate entrepreneurs.
“We started the first Climate Leadership Programme in Kerala and trained around 15 youngsters who hailed from vulnerable regions. We have also been supporting climate entrepreneurs and innovators from Kerala to scale up their ideas and business which can help solve the climate issue and we have mentored over 70 entrepreneur teams over the past few years,” adds Sanju.
Sanju’s commitment to environmental sustainability and social work has been reflected in his personal life as well. In 2020, Sanju had a low-key green wedding on World Environment Day — June 5.
“I met Sonu while we were working at the ATREE and our ideologies matched. We didn’t want an extravagant wedding. So, we convinced our parents and had a low-key green wedding. We didn’t print any wedding invites. Instead, we used the money kept for the wedding to help people in need during the pandemic. We also used some money to develop a Miyawaki forest in a small piece of land,” says Sanju.
Sanju currently works with the World Institute of Sustainable Energy, researching to understand and facilitate multi-level climate governance in Kerala. He also manages his NGO, SUSTERA with its new initiatives in Kerala like creating an ecosystem for green enterprises and eco-restoration.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)