Total sensory overload—looming buildings, endless shanty towns, indistinguishable chaotic lines of traffic, delicious new foods and spices, swarming masses of color as thousands of people weave through the city, giant Ganeshas parading down the streets to the beat of drums, and all sorts of smells both good and far less appealing. This encounter with Mumbai was my first with India and her major cities of Bangalore, Pune, and Delhi this past September as part of my Watson journey. Most people who have been to India understand this mix of chaos and beauty, and also know what I mean when I say there is a wide array of smells. Often, when riding in a rickshaw, I could tell I was about to go by a river just from the foul smell in the air.

Over coffee one evening in Delhi, I began explaining my Watson quest to a few friends: I was in search of young people who are building movements and raising voices on environmental issues in their countries. I wanted to understand the challenges that are both unique and similar for youth working on these issues all over the world. And most importantly, I wanted to find success stories that could inspire and model how youth can be empowered to shape their futures and work with decision-makers. After explaining this, a friend insisted I meet a young man named Vimlendu. On a hot Friday afternoon, I made my way to the small office of “Swechha—We for Change” to meet him. The building did not seem like the typical office space, and appeared to be mostly family residences. After inadvertently walking into a family’s living room, I found the office tucked away half a floor up. Scattered around the small room were cardboard posters calling for action to clean the Yamuna River.

Vimlendu founded Swechha in 2000 because he was horrified by the state of the Yamuna River running through his city and wanted to take action. India has a number of heavily polluted waterways; one of the most polluted is the Yamuna in Delhi. It begins hundreds of miles away from the city in the Himalayas, but the river that winds through Delhi is filled with an insurmountable amount of raw sewage, industrial waste, and trash that chokes its flow. Vimlendu told me that a dirty river reflected a dirty society, and he wanted to change that. He explained that in Hindi swechha means “one’s own free will.” He understands it as a call for each individual to be and create change in the world.
Vimlendu began by mobilizing youth volunteers to help clean the river and raise awareness about its pollution. They became a voice for the waterway and utilized theatrical performances, photo exhibits, film, workshops, and public meetings in schools to educate others. Today, they bring together over one thousand people each year to help clean the river and raise awareness of its condition. They have successfully lobbied the local government for larger efforts to clean the Yamuna and for policy changes such as fencing its bridges to alter the culture of throwing trash directly into the river. Swechha’s programs have expanded to include not only environmental issues, but also education and active citizenship for youth.

What struck me most about Vimlendu and many of the other young activists I have met this year is the ambition and caring at the heart of their work. Environmental issues unfortunately do not have simple solutions, especially in areas like the sprawling metropolis of Delhi. Despite over a decade of work, the state of the Yamuna is depressing at best and poses a daunting challenge for anyone. And yet Vimlendu has inspired many people to take action and work to revive their river. The Yamuna is far from being clean, but Vimlendu’s organization is working to ensure that a generation is better connected to it—a connection that has given youth a reason to reclaim their river.
For me, Vimlendu’s story is what my Watson journey has been about. It has been about discovering the many diverse challenges young people face in having a voice in decision-making processes while fighting for a cleaner environment in their future. On my journey, I continue to be inspired by their stories of change despite of these challenges. Traveling through Turkey, India, Belgium, Holland, Peru, and now Argentina, I have seen culture and government norms shape how the young are empowered on such issues. Holland has a very active national youth council that is supported with funding from the government, but maintains autonomy in designing programs and priorities for those funds. In Turkey, however, I found that young people had to fight a deeper level of tokenism. The local government was happy to “work” alongside a youth group, but they seemed more interested in a photo for the press than actually engaging with them on meaningful service projects.

Despite varying cultures and contexts, within each country I have found young people transcending norms to influence and shape environmental decisions. They are mobilizing and educating others to take action, and even building their own NGOs or businesses to create a more sustainable future now, instead of waiting for political leaders to make the change. Nearly one in five people, or over 1.2 billion individuals, are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. It is a generation that will inherit many daunting environmental problems, such as the polluted Yamuna River. The inspiring initiatives and education of youth are essential to the coming generations, and Vimlendu’s story is one of many. My Watson experience has shown me that we can learn from efforts like Vimlendu’s and empower youth to work with governments, businesses, schools, and themselves to create a better future.