International Women's Day: India's waste warriors clean hiking trails and forests
The biggest challenges are raising funds, trying to work with the government and encouraging people to appreciate the importance of cleanliness Photograph: (Others)
Jodie Underhill came to India in December 2008 as a tourist and then volunteered at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. The apalling situation of garbage piling was something that bothered her every single day. In April 2009, she decided to do something about it and eventually, Waste Warriors happened. The vision is 'A healthier India with improved living standards and a better quality of life where waste workers are valued and respected for their work'.
What motivated you to stay back in India and start Waste Warriors?
I travelled to many countries during my twenties and India was the country I liked the least due to (the presence of) garbage everywhere. I never imagined for a minute that I would return here, let alone stay! I didn’t come to India with the intention of starting an NGO, I just started clean-up drives after feeling so sad at seeing garbage everywhere. That led to educating children, installing dustbins and starting a door-to-door waste collection service. Registering (the NGO) was natural. We then started doing waste management events, doing more and more projects, employing more staff, expanding to Dehradun and Corbett Tiger Reserve and, now, (we) employ 60 people.
What was it about Mcleodganj and Triund that you decided to start your operation there?
I travelled from the South of India to the North over a two-month period and I saw garbage absolutely everywhere and the train journeys were particularly heartbreaking. Himachal was my final destination and I couldn’t take it any longer. I felt like I just had to do something. Anyone who has been to Triund knows why I started the project there, it’s a very special and magical place. The first thing I saw when I reached there was the beauty of the mountain range. Then I looked over the edge and saw the entire place was littered. We not only cleaned the place but also gave bags to the shops and guest houses and asked them to stop burning and dumping their waste, we promised to come back in a week and collect it. We did just that and this was the start of the weekly waste collection service. It took about a year of cleaning every week to clear the litter down the slopes at Triund.
'Half of our Corbett Waste Worker team are women and they are doing a really fabulous job' (Others)
Why do you think people throw their waste and leftovers when they visit a place. Is it a habit or they don't care about the environment or is there another reason?
Most people are not even aware that they are littering, they just naturally drop their packet when they finish eating. When asked why they litter, people often respond with “My one little piece of trash doesn’t make a difference”. Sadly they don’t realise that those small pieces accumulate and it’s the reason that India has such a massive garbage problem. People have become so used to seeing garbage everywhere that they have become desensitised to the issue. However, when the same people go to the West, they use the dustbins, they don’t spit or urinate in public, they become more responsible, thinking before they act. The same can be done here in India with a bit of effort.
How has the local government supported Waste Warriors and what more can they do?
I hate answering this question as I always feel that if I tell the truth, it will jeopardise the future of our organisation. But the fact of the matter is that there has been little help from the government. We have made a decision to employ someone for government liaison in future as it’s a tricky and delicate matter but one of utmost importance. The models we have can only be replicated on large scale if we work with the local administration. I have invested so much time and effort but have had no success. We were so excited when the chief minister of Himachal said he would help to save our Dharamsala project. But five weeks down, no help has come. We are still relying on public donations.
What has been the really challenging and also the most satisfying aspect of running Waste Warriors?
The biggest challenges are raising funds, trying to work with the government and encouraging people to appreciate the importance of cleanliness and change their mindsets towards waste. The most satisfying part is watching the organisation grow, seeing our staff blossom, hearing from people whose lives we have impacted and seeing nature the way it’s supposed to be – garbage free. We love working with kids too as it doesn’t take them long to grasp how important our work is and how they as individuals have the power to make a difference. I know that one day, many of them will grow up and be in positions of power and will make decisions and run their businesses in a way that can benefit their environment and the health of the people around them.
The biggest challenges are raising funds, trying to work with the government and encouraging people to appreciate the importance of cleanliness (Others)
How are women contributing to the cause?
We employ 60 people and 23 of those are women. Minakshi Pandey, head of the Corbett project, is a force to be reckoned with and we have strong female leaders in project management, finance, education and administration too. Half of our Corbett Waste Worker team are women and they are doing a fabulous job. We work with a number of girls' schools here in Dehradun and women make up around 50 per cent of our volunteer base.
What can we do to protect nature from the garbage menace?
1. Don't litter, not even a sweet wrapper, a cigarette butt or the corner of your chip packet! Speak to people who litter and try and encourage them to think responsibly too.
2. Carry a bag for your garbage and do some karma yoga and pick up what other people have dropped.
3. Never, ever buy or accept Styrofoam, yeah it’s cheap and it weighs virtually nothing but it’s non-recyclable and never decomposes. If that’s all the chaiwalla has it’s better to not have a chai. Speak to people that use it and explain how harmful it is for the environment.
4. Reduce the amount of waste you generate. Do not use disposable plastic or paper plates and cups, request reusable ones that can be washed and re-used. When hiking carry your own reusable plate and a cup, it’s easy!
5. Reduce plastic by re-filling your own water bottle wherever possible.
6. Most of the snack items you buy from shops come in non-recyclable packaging so try and reduce your junk food intake.