Sangeetha Sridhar, who is now a UAE expat, will also conduct a cleanliness audit of public toilets on the way.

Coimbatore woman to drive solo visit 150 cities to spread message of cleanliness
news Travel Wednesday, July 04, 2018 - 16:43

Sangeetha Sridhar was always in awe of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. But with the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary approaching this year, she wondered how he was relevant to modern India. So, the 51-year-old UAE expat decided to do something extraordinary – drive solo through India, with a focus on Gandhi’s ideals of cleanliness.

Sangeetha will begin her ‘Clean India trail’ on August 12 from the Gateway of India in Mumbai and intends to cover 150 cities across the country before coming full circle in February. She will touch Guhar Moti in Kutch in the west, Kargil, and Turtuk in Leh in the north, Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh in the east and Kanyakumari in the south.

“I will also be speaking to people – especially women and school children – in the cities that I visit about Clean India and how they can take up the local sanitation issues with the management,” Sangeetha tells TNM.

A desire to fulfil her late father’s wishes

Originally from Coimbatore, Sangeetha grew up in the Nilgiris. Two decades ago, she moved to Abu Dhabi for work and has been there ever since. But like many NRIs, she hoped to see how far her home country had come. Her reverence for Gandhi also led her to adopt a minimalistic lifestyle and veganism.

Sangeetha’s earlier visits to India were short and targeted – she would come down during critical times to help her bedridden and ailing father. But when he passed away in July 2016, she felt like she needed to rethink many things.

One of the things her father would say to Sangeetha, who works as an e-government consultant in Abu Dhabi, is, “You have been doing so well in Abu Dhabi. But what will happen to India, who will serve our country?”

A few years on, Sangeetha is finally realising her father’s dream in her own way. “I will carry the brand of ‘Incredible India’… and I ultimately hope to inspire women to travel and take up issues of sanitation,” she says.

‘My drive is my message’

Sangeetha wants to embody the Gandhian principles she planned to popularise. She did not want to take a luxurious trip, so she started looking for ways to optimise her resources. What helped was that as word spread, she got partners on board to help her out.

Some of the brands supporting her are Tata Sons and Tata Motors, who also provided her with the vehicle she will be using – a Tata Hexa. She also got partners for navigation (Map my India), tracking and outdoor safety among other things.

“The next challenge was to make the car a small livable space for me for six months. I do not intend to stay in hotels, and will mostly be sleeping in my car,” Sangeetha shares. So, when she did the trial drive last week from Mumbai to Coimbatore, she stopped in Bengaluru for five days where the Hexa was modified to suit her needs.

The two rows of seats in the back were removed. “We used wood planks and made them in a such a way that I can rearrange them into a stool as well as a study table. Then I needed a small space to keep a few pairs of clothes. I also insisted on having a sink, because I feel like having my hands clean is essential to staying healthy,” Sangeetha shares.

This is perhaps the most interesting bit, for Sangeetha fashioned a sink out of a water can from a man who was going to discard it, and which she bought from him for Rs 50. Sangeetha cut off the top, and inverted it. She plans to fix it in her car and use the mouth of the can as the water outlet. The container bit of the water can, she intends to use to catch the used water, and at other times, as a dustbin for her dry waste.

When asked if she has any apprehensions or fears about her trip, she says, “I have no answers when my husband asks me where I will stay. My car is my home, so I will just have to find a safe parking spot each night. That is something I cannot plan, but my faith in people’s goodwill is more than my fear.”  

Getting the Tourism Ministry’s backing

When Sangeetha told India’s ambassador to UAE Navdeep Suri about her plans, he was very supportive.

“I had prepared a checklist, after modifying ASEAN standards, using which I wanted to audit public toilets and the highway toilets on my journey. Not just me, any single woman traveling out and about, would need to use these. The ambassador was very keen on this – he said that this data could be used in a number of ways to improve sanitation. And so, the Indian Ministry of Tourism came on board,” she narrates. 

Sangeetha also intends to capture 360-degree photos of the places and heritage sites she visits and provide them to the Tourism Ministry so they can build a Virtual Reality library.

Speaking to women and children

Sangeetha plans to drive early each morning – around 4am – and interact with corporates and schools during the second half of the day. FICCI Ladies Organisation is helping organise these interactions in several cities.

“I want to ask women what is it that stops them from travelling, even if it is within their own localities. If we can figure out how they can identify these issues and take it up with local authorities. I will be sharing my checklist for auditing public toilets with them using photographs, GPS and waste management indicators too.”

Sangeetha cooking on a potable stove using biofuel 

In schools, she wants to speak to children about three things – responsibility, recycling and cleanliness – using interactive picture stories. “They will know that Clean India begins with their and their families’ habits. I will give them tips on recycling wet waste in their homes and responsibly disposing trash when travelling.”

Sangeetha adds that she is open to sponsorships because she is self-funding the trip so far and the fuel and toll costs are estimated to be around Rs 7 lakh. But more than anything, she is excited to visit the places close to Gandhi. “I am looking forward to go to Sabarmati in Gujarat and Champaran in Bihar,” she says.

(Photos and video by Aswath Sridhar)

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