One teenager's mission to improve the lives of Mumbai's ragpickers and cleaners

Sanjana Runwal, a Class X student of Bombay Scottish School, wants to improve the lives of ragpickers and cleaners across Mumbai by distributing essentials like food and safety gear to this neglected community. We present this teenager's inspiring story, for your dose of Monday Motivation.

While Sanjana Runwal, a Class X student of Bombay Scottish School, may be planning for college and enjoying life like many others, she is also ensuring her present is meaningful. The teen is working tirelessly to bring about a positive change in the community and make a difference to people around her, namely Mumbai's ragpickers and cleaners.

Teaming up with NGO Clean-Up Foundation, Sanjana Runwal has been working towards the welfare of ragpickers in Mumbai.

Apart from being a voracious reader, a basketball enthusiast, and an accomplished pianist, Sanjana, has been working for the welfare of numerous ragpickers in the city, partnering with Clean-Up Foundation, an NGO based in Mumbai. 

This is not Sanjana’s first social endeavour. It all began when her school kicked off a campaign to raise funds for prosthetic limbs in 2018. Sanjana, who aims to become a lawyer, actively participated in the donation drive and managed to collect enough money to enable eight people to walk.

She tells SocialStory,

“The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the campaign, was the unimaginable difficulty that people face without legs. Since prosthetic limbs was the only way to get them back on their feet, I really wanted to do my bit for the campaign. Hence, I started my very own crusade on the crowdfunding platform, Fueladream, and also on my personal social media handles. At the end of it, I managed to collect Rs 84,000."

Sanjana Runwal distributing gumboots to ragpickers, who deal with the vagaries of weather every day.

Sanjana later went on to spearhead the activities of Clean-Up Foundation, founded by her brother, Siddharth Runwal. One of its main initiatives is to work for the welfare of one of the most neglected set of people in Mumbai - garbage cleaners and ragpickers. She not only distributed free safety equipment, but also provided them with food and clean drinking water thus impacting the lives of 350 workers.

An essential but neglected lot

Ragpickers are an integral part of the city’s workforce. Scavenging for waste every day, picking up plastic bottles, discarded packing material and crushed paper, everything from samosas to vegetable peels, and finally segregating and trading them all, they play a major role in keeping our cities clean and tidy. But the community struggles to lead decent lives and most of them remain mired in poverty.

An estimated 1.5 million ragpickers of India work in inhuman conditions, are exposed to harmful substances, lack basic civic amenities, and barely make an income.

Ragpickers work in inhuman conditions, are exposed to harmful substances, lack basic civic amenities, and barely make an income (Image: Shutterstock)

After becoming aware of their suffering, Sanjana made up her mind to help ragpickers. She joined Clean-Up Foundation and took over its operations when Siddharth had to move abroad for his higher education.

“The foundation, which was already working towards the welfare of waste pickers, had set up several water purifiers across ward offices of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), thereby helping 12,000 cleaners gain access to clean drinking water every day. However, this was just the first step. I realised there was a lot more to be done. I launched the 'Caring for the Cleaners' initiative in 2019 solely aimed at uplifting the lives of ragpickers,” Sanjana explains.

The foundation distributed raincoats and gumboots to over 200 ragpickers across Mumbai. The idea behind this was to preserve the health and safety of cleaners during the heavy rains and thunderstorms the city is known for. “The success of this drive can be attributed to the contributions made by all the donors as well as Chandrakanth Tambe, the BMC ward officer who helped me with the identification of ragpickers and fulfillment of other legal formalities,” Sanjana says.

Sanjana Runwal and the the foundation distributed raincoats and gumboots to over 200 ragpickers across Mumbai.

The future looks bright

It’s not easy to manage studies and a social initiative. Sanjana spends an average of two hours a day doing social work. But this in no way is going to stop the teenager from continuing her work. She is planning to reach out to many more ragpickers across the country through multiple initiatives.

“This is only the beginning. I want to do a lot more for the welfare of cleaners in India. My immediate plan is to raise funds to provide medical insurance since many of the ragpickers tend to fall ill often, maybe because they work in such unhygienic conditions.”

Sanjana Runwal unveiling water purifiers to be installed at BMC wards.

And Sanjana’s brother Siddharth, who is pursuing his higher education at North Western University in the US, is all praise for his sister. “Sanjana has been doing a fantastic job and I am extremely proud of her. I am sure she is going to bring about sweeping changes for the well-being of society in the future.”

It is said that one kind gesture is enough to motivate people to do more. So what motivates Sanjana?

“It is bizarre how even a small action of ours can create a large-scale impact in people’s lives. This is exactly what motivates me to keep going. If each one of us can take it upon ourselves to do our bit to the society, the world will become a much better place.”