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Leading agricultural innovation in Odisha: Naisargik's Changemaker Journey

With his changemaking power, Naisargik is determined to counteract environmental pollution and curb the risk of cancer with agricultural innovation and community outreach.
Naisargik AYC India 2019

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 at 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, and some days with his team members cooking up a new social initiative.  

At just 17, 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 changemaker in his community. By activating others to find their own power to be changemakers, Naisargik launched a youth-led storytelling initiative, uplifting stories from his peers and leading social innovators to share stories of change. His journey to changemaking, however, it started back when he was in grade school and just discovering his creative spirit. 

Naisargik also grew up in a multi-generational household, embracing an array of family's values and beliefs. His grandmother, a social activist who authored more than fifty books, quickly steered his mind toward ideas of justice and equality. At the same time, his grandfather imbued him with the philosophy of 'Propakaraya Swargaya', or ‘live for others’. His family also shares the values ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’, which means ‘the whole world is a family’.  

 

Following the wisdom of his family, Naisargik consciously practiced being empathetic and open, increasingly aware of his own social responsibility. His family’s view of the world also inspired him to spend time with children at a nearby orphanage and use his weekends to tutor children from untapped communities.

Along with community service, Naisargik participated in various dance dramas and street plays, which were focused on creating awareness on social issues in his community. These plays promoted a range of initiatives, such as the “no tobacco” movement, tree planting drives, and local cancer awareness programs.

His creativity as a child blossomed into the skills needed for a young researcher and innovator. But it was not easy for Nasairgik to pursue innovation. Facing resistance at school for spending too much of his time on “experiments”, Nasairgik constantly battled what he described as a “traditional education,” which did not provide space for exploration. 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 passion for inventing, Naisargik did not stop. Instead, he found avenues outside of the classroom to explore his interests.

In class 6, Naisargik visited the Bali Yatra fair held in Cuttack. The first thing he noticed was a strong, foul smell caused by public urination. Naisargik discovered that the community hosting the fair lacked access to safe and clean toilets. This moment shocked Naisargik, recognizing the disparity between his community and this one based on hygiene.

This encounter triggered Naisargik to develop a smart toilet model called the ‘Swachh Apt’, a phone app that automatically flushes a nearby toilet after being used while purifying and recycling the wastewater so that it could be used again as flush water. His contribution was soon adopted by the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ government program for health and hygiene.

Naisargik was fired up – determined to find technology-driven solutions to local challenges. So, coming from the Jaipur district of Odisha, which is home to 98% chromite reserves of India, Naisargik recognized the risk his community 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. 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 operate without environmental management plans, causing untreated and chromium-polluted water to contaminate waterways and riverbanks that can cause cancer. In fact, more than 10 lakh people, or 1 million people, have been affected by cancer in his region.

Determined to find a solution to this harmful practice, Nasargik researched extensively about mining and studied academic literature on the topic. Eighteen months of inquisitiveness led him to the school of Biological Sciences Laboratory of NISER, or the National Institute of Science Education and Research. Through a collaboration, he began to experiment with bioremediation strategies to clean contaminated mining processes in his community. Essentially, bioremediation 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 procedures for mining in his community to reduce environmental and human hazards.

Naisargik launched two social ventures to take on this project: Project Shakti & Yuva Utkal, Baisargik. These social ventures address the issue through scientific prevention and community awareness. The first initiative promotes innovative agricultural practices, such as bioremediation, throughout the state of Odisha. He formed a huge 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.

The second social venture is a storytelling initiative that sends volunteer storytellers to villages affected by the pollution. The volunteers engage with the community by sharing personal stories that raise awareness about the dangers of mining on the health of residents and the environment.

Discovering the power of storytelling, Nasairgik expanded this idea to develop a new initiative called the Changemaker Times to broadcast stories of changemakers around the country. And, when he is not amplifying the voices of others, Nasairgik 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. Nasargik’s journey demonstrates what it means to be a serial innovator, constantly spotting problems and piloting solutions without hesitation of his age, experience, or education. He is pushing the boundaries on what it means to be a scientist by using technology for good and as a tool for social change.

 

This story was written by Vedha Bandaru.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.