[Year in Review] From Greta Thunberg to Deepika Padukone, here are the top 10 newsmakers of 2019

Here is a list of personalities who dominated the headlines in 2019 by setting new benchmarks and bringing about a transformation in society.

Spiritual leader Dalai Lama once said, “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” His quote emphasises the need to put the best foot forward to improve ways of living.

While some have worked relentlessly to improve rural employability, others have put in efforts to root out the stigma surrounding mental health.

SocialStory’s top 10 newsmakers of 2019 lists personalities who have gone that extra mile to create a difference in the community, change the way we think, and make the world truly a better place. 

These individuals not only dominated the headlines in 2019 by setting new benchmarks but, achieved extraordinary feats to bring about a transformation in society.

Neelam Chhiber

Neelam Chhiber is the Co-founder and Managing Trustee at Industree Foundation, an organisation that works towards building sustainable livelihoods for rural artisans. Neelam, who was in Davos to participate in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January 2019 said, India's GDP is not reflecting social inclusion.

Neelam Chhiber, Co-founder and Managing Trustee at Industree Foundation. Image courtesy: Industree Foundation

She termed women in rural India as the biggest losers of the urban migration-driven economic growth. She even pitched for an Amul-like model to create several cooperatives in the country, and make them more viable by using technology. Neelam has helped build the two largest farm producer companies that supply products to global brands like Ikea, H&M, Future Group, and Westside.

An industrial design graduate from NID-Ahmedabad, Neelam and her team have been working with rural communities to equip them with necessary design, technical, marketing, and management skills.

Neerja Birla

A study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015 stated that one in five Indians, equivalent to 200 million people, is prone to suffer from depression and other mental health disorders in their lifetime. Yet, the subject remains a taboo in most Indian households, schools, colleges, and offices.

Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson of Mpower, an Aditya Birla Education Trust initiative to address mental healthcare gaps in India, has been doing her bit to root out the stigma associated with mental healthcare. Aiming to aware and encourage conversation around mental health, Neerja started the ‘Ride to Mpower’ campaign in 2015 and has been running it successfully for the last four years.

Neerja Birla (Image: Twitter)

With a theme, #StampOutStigma, the campaign completed its fourth edition in Mumbai in 2019, where over 1,700 cyclists and fitness enthusiasts pledged to become champions of mental health. The intention of organising these public events had been to educate individuals on the correlation between physical and mental health for overall well-being.

Vivek Tankha

Rural India faces multiple problems ranging from poverty, illiteracy, lack of electricity, water, and hygiene, often interlinked, thus requiring holistic intervention. Vivek Tankha, former Advocate General for the State of Madhya Pradesh, has been advocating for inclusive development in many such areas by undertaking several projects to provide sound healthcare in the rural areas of the state.

Vivek Tankha received the legend of Rotary award in Raipur, in September last year.

Over the years, Vivek has undertaken several measures through collaborations with international organisations. The medical camps organised by him, addressed the needs of more than one lakh people across Jabalpur, Narsinghpur, Chhindwara, and Mandla.

Given the scale of the problems related to healthcare infrastructure and accessibility in rural areas, he aims to organise more free camps with medical professionals, to complement the government schemes and create a large-scale impact.

Devarapalli Prakash Rao

Since 2018, 59-year-old Devarapalli Prakash Rao, a tea seller in the city of Cuttack, Odisha, has been making headlines across the nation. He first came under the spotlight when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited him in Cuttack, and when he mentioned his work during one of his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio broadcasts. In 2019, Rao became the recipient of the Padma Shri award, the fourth-highest civilian award conferred by the Government of India.

Devarapalli Prakash Rao (Image: Newskart)

For the past two decades, Rao has been setting aside half his income from selling tea, to educate more than 70 slum children, aged four to nine-years-old. By starting a school called, ‘Asha O Ashwasana’ in 2000, he ensured that these children do not get pulled away by crime and alcohol instead, concentrate on their education. Despite not being encouraged by his father to pursue studies, Rao never stopped helping the young minds around him to get a proper education.

Anmol Rodriguez

Anmol Rodriguez was just two-months-old when her father poured acid on her in an attempt to kill her. Anmol had to undergo several surgical procedures, and she lost an eye and her face became disfigured in the process.

Anmol is quite active on Instagram and has gained popularity among her fans. Source: Medium

Today, she is a fashion icon, with her Instagram handle having over one lakh followers. However, the aspect that stands out the most is that the 23-year-old now is also setting an example of how one can, if they really want to, rise above all odds. Aiming to become the first commercial acid attack survivor model, she founded an NGO called, Acid Attack Survivor Sahas Foundation.

Her NGO focusses on providing counselling and employment opportunities to the survivors of acid attacks and enables them to take care of their needs. It also helps them get proper education and makes them emotionally strong.

Dr Seema Waghmode

At a time when India is focussing on economic development and women empowerment, many young helpless women and children from impoverished backgrounds are being drawn into the sex trade. While some of these commercial sex workers (CSWs) work without problems, most others fall prey and are drawn to sex trade unknowingly.

The rescued children and commercial sex workers under Seema's care.

Compelled by the desire to rescue these women and children, Seema Waghmode started Kayakalpa, an NGO, which is also supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The NGO provides regular health check-ups, counselling sessions, education, and food to the CSW’s, as well as their kids. At present, her organisation is looking after 35 children.

Sunita Devi

Making India free from open defecation requires a change in the societal mindset and behaviour. While government data shows that over 90 percent of individuals have access to toilets and are using them under the ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission, the ground reality seems to be different.

Sunita Devi (Image: Telegraph)

Sunita Devi, a resident of Jharkhand, has taken it upon herself to make her village, Udaypura, free from open defecation. To achieve this goal, she undertook a course to learn how to construct an individual household twin-pit toilet. And, right after completing it, she started building toilets in marginalised areas where people could not afford to construct a toilet.

Additionally, Sunita has also formed a women’s discussion group, which meets every weekend to discuss issues such as cleanliness, open defecation, alcoholism, child marriage, and women’s safety. To date, she has constructed 475 toilets and has encouraged and trained over 300 rani mistris to build over 1,500 toilets.

Deepika Padukone

When actress Deepika Padukone spoke about her struggles with depression, she opened up an entire avenue to talk about mental health. That is not all. She founded The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF) in 2015 to champion the cause of mental health in India.

Deepika Padukone

Her foundation launches nationwide awareness and de-stigmatisation campaigns about the same. Deepika received the 26th Annual Crystal Award in 2019 for spreading awareness about the importance of mental health as well.

Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy

The LGBTQ+ community has been struggling on both legal and social fronts for decades now. Lawyers Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy, rooted out Section 377, a provision that rendered all sexual activities “against the order of nature” punishable by law.

Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy (Image: Time 100)

Through their clever and factual arguments, the duo led the entire community to a historic win and gave them their fundamental rights, privacy, dignity, safety, and love. Arundhati and Menaka have not only raised their voice against discrimination but also against the violence the LGBTQ+ has been facing.

The duo also made it to the Time 100 Most Influential People list of 2019 for their undeterred contribution.

Greta Thunberg

Former US President Herbert Hoover once said, “Children are our most valuable resource.” In today’s world, with the likes of 16-year-old climate change activist, Greta Thunberg initiating global movements, these words resonate even more.

Greta Thunberg in Stockholm, Sweden

On September 23, the Swedish teenage activist, whose campaigns on environmental protection have gained international recognition, took the stage at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, to condemn global leaders for their failure to acknowledge and act upon the pressing issue of the climate crisis. In a stinging speech, Greta addressed governments across the world, questioning their empty words.

When she decided to fight climate change, she may not have thought that she was starting a global movement. Over the past year, she has spearheaded a far-reaching movement, called out countries, and showed the power of youth. She was chosen as the Person of the Year 2019, by TIME Magazine for ushering in a change.

(Edited by Suman Singh)