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The Briton who is cleaning up India

December 11, 2014 12:39 IST

There is a reason Jodie Underhill is called the 'garbage girl'.

Archana Masih/Rediff.com meets the young lady who has been dirtying her hands in a crusade against filth.

Jodie Underhill"The first thing I saw were the beautiful mountains, but when I looked over the edge what I saw was -- garbage," says Jodie Underhill remembering her trek to Triund, near McLeodganj a few years ago.

Left: Jodie Underhill, CEO-Founder, Waste Warriors. Photograph: Seema Pant/Rediff.com

After spending three months travelling through Mumbai, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, she had made her way to Dharamsala in 2008.

"India is such a beautiful country, but I haven't seen filth on this scale. People just don't care," she continues talking about her battle with garbage in her office-cum-home in Dehradun; which is also a refuge to Bella, a donkey that broke its leg in a car accident across the road.

"I thought Dharamsala would be my salvation. It was the home of the Dalai Lama and would be clean, but I was wrong. I got off the tourist bus at 6 am to see a big pile of garbage at my feet. I couldn't take it anymore."

A native of England, Underhill, who had come to volunteer at a Tibetan school, then spent two weeks walking around McLeodganj with a placard saying 'Volunteers Needed.'

Hundreds of people, mostly foreigners, turned up for her first clean up.

She and the volunteers went on to clean a children's park that had been made into a dumping ground and started a waste collection system from home and shops in Triund so that people stopped throwing garbage down the mountains.

"With every piece of glass, plastic or trash you picked, it felt you were rescuing nature in a small way," she says.

Since then waste is collected from 250 households and brought down on mules. Her NGO also maintains an 8-km-long popular trekking trail.

Underhill, who is often called 'pagal (mad) for her passion for cleaning up and disposing off waste in the correct way, moved to Dehradun in 2012 to start Waste Warriors with funding from Max-India.

One of its projects was Gandhi Park, the only park in the city, which costs Rs 20,000 a month to maintain.

The organisation and its staff of 24 waste workers maintain certain shopping complexes, forest areas and localities in cooperation with shopkeepers and locals. She also conducts workshops in schools and has conducted a programme on waste management with the Indian Army.

"In India, people have a terrible attitude towards those who clear waste. They are the invisible people. Without them India would have disappeared under its garbage," says the 38 year old, who won Times Now's Amazing Indian Award in 2012 and a Rs 4 lakh (Rs 400,000) grant from the Mahindra Rise competition that supports new ideas.

In addition, Mahindra also gave Waste Warriors two pick-up trucks. It was the first time Waste Warriors moved on from the sole cycle rickshaw it had used till then to collect waste. Individual donations also help the organisation with funds -- one of them being Telugu movie superstar Chiranjeevi's contribution of Rs 5 lakhs (Rs 500,000).

When Underhill, a CEO without a salary, could not get a reduction in her visa extension fee of Rs 32,000 recently, Michael Dalvi, the former Ranji Trophy player, donated the amount to the NGO.

Waste Warriors charges Rs 100 from a chaiwallah to Rs 5,000 from a bank to collect and dispose the garbage responsibly. In a particular complex in Dehradun, the waste was earlier being dumped into a parking lot.

Struggling to raise funds and at times confronted with local governmental indifference, working with garbage hasn't been easy for Underhill. It also elicits prejudice. She was once reported as a prostitute to the Foreigners Registration Office because residents disapproved of her living with two sweepers and her clean-up rounds in a cycle rickshaw.

"I shared their home. It was convenient as I worked with them," she says and is grateful to have found the present space where Waste Warriors does waste segregation, composting and even provides shelter to cows, donkeys and dogs

Jodie with BellaGetting down on her knees as she goes through a pile of garbage her waste warriors had brought in, she picks up a plastic bag with rotting, smelly foodstuff.

"This plastic will take hundreds of years to decompose," she says, reiterating the 5 important things all of us MUST do:

  • Segregate dry and liquid waste.
  • Stop using plastic.
  • Recycle.
  • Compost food/ garden waste.
  • Stop LITTERING and PEEING anywhere you feel like!

Image: Jodie Underhill with Bella, an injured donkey that she has given refuge. Photograph: Seema Pant/Rediff.com

"To change mindsets and habits is not impossible, but difficult. Stopping littering, dumping, burning is equivalent to giving up alcohol or drug addiction," says Underhill, whose NGO is also working with six villages surrounding the Corbett National Park and aims to expand to 120 villages in the next five years.

With no awareness or mechanism, villagers have been dumping their waste into the Corbett tiger reserve. Funding for the first year has been provided by Mahindra. Waste Warriors has projects in Dharamsala, Dehradun, Corbett and has recently started work in Rishikesh. It aims at having similar projects around the country.

Underhill is quite obviously, excited about the Swachh Bharat initiative, and is eager to make a presentation to the prime minister. "I'd like to tell him what needs to be done because I work in the field," she says.

"The PM is doing the right thing, but sweeping is not enough, it also has to be disposed properly. We need infrastructure, technology and mass scale awareness," says Underhill.

"The municipal solid waste rules that came into being 14 years ago need to be enforced and read by every government official. This piece of legislation is the key to cleaning India."

Yet she feels no government can work wonders unless the people bring about the transformation themselves.

Back in England, her parents think she has lost her mind to be working with garbage in India. But she feels India is home.

"English parents are like Indian parents. They want you to get married and have kids. I say I want to make a difference for other kids," says Underhill who hasn't been home for a couple of years.

"What are we leaving behind for them -- a planet that has nothing left? Millions are going to die if we don't change the way we live."

Archana Masih/Rediff.com in Dehradun
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