“I didn’t choose garbage, it chose me!” for a woman fighting to keep her very first project in India alive, Jodie Underhill – co-founder of Waste Warriors – seems rather upbeat. “When I witnessed how severe India’s garbage problem is, it completely broke my heart. I also realised then that I’d found my life’s mission. I love a challenge and I’ve picked up lots of garbage whilst on my travels even before coming to India.”
For the past seven years, Jodie – or Garbage Girl as she is called – has been fighting to keep India clean of garbage
She had no support, financial or otherwise, just an army of volunteers who took up arms – and legs – to clean up the country. “I founded Waste Warriors only in 2012,”she tells Indiatimes in an exclusive interaction. “At that time the destination saw about 10,000 visitors each year and there was no one to clean up after they left. Out of habit, I started cleaning up along the trail. Today, there are about 10,000 people visiting every month.”
Can you imagine the amount of garbage that is left behind?”
“Today Waste Warriors has several projects working across tourist destinations in Himachal Pradesh. My heart will always lie in the Dharamshala but that project has reached a very difficult point,” she says.
“The boys who work at Waste Warriors are like my brothers and I am ashamed that I can only pay them a meagre amount for the efforts they put in. They hike up and down the mountain, every week, in every season, in every state of health, just to pick up the garbage. They go from door to door collecting garbage from the homes that are brought down from the remote villages in the mountain for proper disposal.”
She says, “This is not a sexy industry, I know. There is a social stigma attached to the job I do and I understand that it is even harder for people to turn up, as they have, for the cleanups we have organised. Waste Warriors has helped provide employment to the lowest class of people in the country and a chance to live with dignity.”
“It hurts that I have been putting in money raised by other projects of Waste Warriors to fund the Dharamshala project as it is simply not making any money,”she says. “The money that the boys are making does not even cover the basic expense for the effort! The people refuse to participate and the shopkeepers do not wish to pool their benefits with the boys who are cleaning up. The people of Himachal are not willing to participate.”
There was a flicker of hope when the state minister for urban planning, Sudhir Sharma, visited us. “I thought things would look up and he could motivate people to help or provide us with some funds. That didn’t happen!”
After a pause, she adds, “People think that Waste Warriors has some kind of funding from like the Queen of England or something. In India, NGOs have such a bad reputation that people don’t want to believe that there are a few organisations working honestly and transparently for years as they believe in the cause.”
Tired of waiting for the government to show any interest and disappointed in the reaction from the people who see the team working every week but do not wish to support the effort, Jodie took to a crowdfunding campaign to support the Dharamshala project. “I was so surprised! People who had once visited or wanted to visit, people from all over the country started pooling in help. We are nearly at 4 lakh now but we need a total of 12 lakh to keep the project alive,” she informs. “The team of boys need to be paid and with the winters coming up, expenses are mounting and we need to take a call on whether we can continue the project.”
“It would kill me to end it. This project is what made me fall in love with India and I don’t want it to end.”
If you wish to donate and save the Dharamshala Project please click here.