The Waste Warriors, who are silently cleaning up India, city by city

When U.K.-based Jodie Underhill came to India in 2008, she was stunned. Not just at how beautiful the country was, but also at the garbage on our streets. Having travelled across the world in her twenties, Jodie found India to be among the dirtiest. And she decided to clean it up.

She started with McLeodganj in Dharmashala, Himachal Pradesh. With a handful of volunteers, she cleaned-up the garbage in the tourist suburb. Triund came next. “People said you have to see this place, it’s beautiful,” recalls Jodie. She trekked up the hill, only to be struck again by the amount of garbage tourists had thrown over the edge of the mountain. “I spent the next one year there, cleaning-up.” It was risky, for volunteers had to hike downhill every day. Below them, were years of accumulated garbage that included broken bottles — they were collected and lifted up using ropes.

Once the hill was spic and span, Jodie decided to carry on with her clean-up mission. She formed Waste Warriors in September 2012. The voluntary waste management organisation is silently cleaning-up India, city-by-city. They operate out of Dehradun and Dharmashala, and have helped manage waste generated during large-scale events such as IPL matches, the Sunburn Music Festival, the Hyderabad Marathon and the Manimahesh Yatra.

Their modus operandi is simple: Collect the waste, segregate it, and recycle it. At Dharmashala for instance, they provide a door-to-door garbage collection service where their workers collect garbage from homes, segregate, sell the recyclables, and compost the food waste. They have recently acquired a project to manage the waste at Jim Corbett. “We will provide a door-to-door service to people who live at the boundary of the National Park,” says Tashi Pareek, project manager and co-founder. “People just cross the road that separates them from the Park and dump their garbage inside,” she says. This could prove fatal for wildlife there — they could choke on plastic waste.

Tashi joined Waste Warriors as a volunteer in 2011. Born and raised in India where people who collect waste are placed at the bottom of the caste system, Tashi says she’s involved in Waste Warriors because she wants to “do something positive” for society and the environment. The 26-year-old hopes to motivate youth to think that ‘throwing garbage on the streets is not cool’. People should be embarrassed about littering their environment, feels Tashi.

Does she ever think twice about picking up someone else’s garbage? “No. It’s we who have created it. It has not come from the top,” she says. It is the attitude about waste that has to change. Waste Warriors is trying to bring about this change. They do so by involving children and local communities in waste-management activities. The team regularly organises awareness drives and clean-ups involving children to promote the message of a clean environment.

For, the change should start from them, feels Jodie. If people are taught that they should drop the chocolate wrapper in the nearest garbage can and not the road at a young age, they will follow it for life. “With these little changes in our attitude, the whole of India can change,” she says.

When was the last time you looked at the face of the lady who comes to collect your garbage, asks Tashi. These people are not treated with respect. “They are invisible,” feels Jodie. This is because they are not well-paid; their working conditions are poor. But without them, “we are all screwed-up,” she says. Tashi calls for gloves, uniforms, and a decent salary for the men and women who keep our cities clean. “Say hello when you see them. Invite them home and offer to teach them English once in a month.” And most importantly, “acknowledge their work.”

Stepping up the campaign

Waste Warriors were the waste management partners for the recently-concluded Chennai Marathon. With help of volunteers from PaperMan, Chennai Trekking Club, Sneham Orphanage, Bhumi, and the Young Women’s Christian Association, they managed the waste generated by thousands of people at the event. They collected waste firsthand from runners, who were also advised prior to the start of the event on keeping the tracks clean. The mammoth amount of waste collected was segregated for recycling. Jodie mentions that about one ton of food waste was composted.