Leading agricultural innovation in Odisha: Naisargik's Changemaker Journey
Naisargik, an Ashoka Young Changemaker, found his power to create change when he was in his teens. His remarkable sharpness and investigative nature positioned him to experiment with scientific solutions for challenges facing his state. As an emerging innovator and leader of India, Naisargik is on his path to a lifetime of changemaking, and activating other young minds to join him.
A typical day for Naisargik Lenka as a teenager starts with a morning walk and calming music before he heads to school from 7 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. Right after school, he spends the rest of his evening working, some days on his research to revolutionize the agricultural industry in Odisha, and some days with his team members working on a new social initiative to rewrite what it means to grow up in today's world..
In grade school, Naisargik started researching and developing bio-engineering strategies to clean contaminated water and air in his community. Today, he is a vibrant innovator and leading changemaking in his community, activating others to find their own power to be changemakers through launching youth-led storytelling initiatives and environmental projects. However, as a young boy with a creative spirit, his journey to changemaking started back when he was in grade school.
From an early age, Naisargik participated in various dance dramas and street plays, and the narratives were centered around creating awareness for social issues and local solutions in his community. These plays promoted a range of initiatives, such as the “no tobacco” movement, tree planting drives, and cancer awareness programs.
When not at school or with his friends, Naisargik spent time with his family. Growing up in a multi-generational household, he embraced an array of his family's values and beliefs. His grandmother, a social activist who authored more than fifty books , steered his mind towards ideas of justice and equality. At the same time, his grandfather imbued him with the philosophy of 'Propakaraya Swargaya', or ‘live for others’.
His grandparents inspired him to give back, especially with his time. Naisargik would spend time with children at orphanages and his weekends tutoring children from untapped communities. Actively engaged in his community, his family also shares the value of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’, which means ‘the whole world is a family’. Naisargik, modeling his parents and grandparents, consciously practiced being empathetic and open, increasingly embracing his own social responsibility.
His creativity as a child through street plays and theater blossomed into a path of research and innovation early on in grade school. But, it was not easy for Nasairgik to pursue his passion. Facing resistance at school for spending his time on "experimentation," his peers would say with condescension. Nasairgik constantly battled what he described as a traditional education set up, which did not provide the space for exploration or independent learning. Oftentimes, he would hear many of his peers laugh and say, “why are you wasting time on all these experiments instead of studying?”
However, with the support of his parents and his unwieldy passion for inventing, Naisargik did not stop his experiments. Instead, he discovered his unique power to create change thorough innovation when he was in Class 6.
When he visited the Bali Yatra fair held in Cuttack, instead of feeling excited and playful, the first thing he noticed was the strong foul smell caused by public urination. Upon further inspection, Naisargik learned that the community where the fair was held lacked access to safe and clean toilets. This encounter triggered an idea to develop a smart toilet model called the ‘Swachh Apt’, an app that automatically flushes the toilet after being used while purifying and recycling the wastewater so that it can be used again as flush water. His contribution was recognized and adopted by a local government program.
This successful innovation overjoyed Naisargik, bestowing him the confidence to continue experimenting. So, Naisargik looked inward, determined to better understand the challenges faced in his own community.
Coming from the Jaipur district of Odisha, which is home to 98% chromite reserves of India, Naisargik recognized the risk they faced in the name of economic development. Chromite is a highly valued mineral for manufacturing but is also a harmful substance that can contaminate soil, air and water. Through textbooks and the internet, Naisargik learned that chromium is released into the air during a harmful practice called opencast mining, which means extracting rocks and minerals from an open-air pit, rather than digging deep into the earth.
Unsurprisingly, these mines plagued the Jaipur region, operating without environmental management plans or government oversight. This mismanagement leads to untreated and chromium-polluted water that contaminates waterways and riverbanks, which is linked to cancer in the region. In fact, more than 10 lakh people, or 1 million people, have been affected by cancer in his home state.
Determined to find a solution to this harmful practice, Nasargik researched more about mining and studied the academic literature. His one and a half years of inquisitiveness led him to the school of Biological Sciences Laboratory of NISER, or the National Institute of Science Education and Research. Working alongside research assistants and students of biological sciences, he began to experiment with bioremediation strategies to clean up contaminated areas. Bioremediation, essentially, is the process of treating contaminated water and soil and is a less expensive and more sustainable method of mining.
This research led to Nasargik's next big project: implementing new ways of mining in his community to reduce environmental and human hazards. Naisargik launched two social ventures in his late teens, called Project Shakti and Yuva Utkal. His pair of social ventures address the issue in a two-fold manner: through scientific prevention and community awareness, respectively.
The first initiative aims to adopt innovative agricultural practices, such as bioremediation, throughout Odisha to mitigate the environmental and human hazards of mining. To achieve such a goal, he formed a team of 200 young people across the region to help implement these strategies. At such an early age, Naisargik and his extensive team were determined to serve over 70 villages in the Sukinda Valley region of India with innovative and safer mining practices.
This second social venture is a storytelling initiative that sends volunteer storytellers to villages affected by pollution from the mines every few weeks. The volunteers engage with the community through stories to raise awareness about the dangers of mining on locals and the environment. Discovering the power of storytelling, Nasairgik expanded this idea to develop another initiative, called the Changemaker Times, to broadcast the stories of changemakers around the country.
Nasargik recognizes that his changemaker journey is only getting started. When he is not amplifying the voices of others, he is also pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering. After university, he sees himself scaling his research activities to help solve more challenges and bring breakthrough technology to the health sector.
This story was written by Vedha Bandaru, Ashoka India Intern
This article has been edited for length and clarity.