The Garbage Girl of Himalayas

The Garbage Girl of Himalayas Source: Himalayan News Chronicle

By Reeta Rani Nayak

Jodie Underhill, is an avid horse-lover, a globe-trotter, Ex- Legal Editor, Fundraising Assistant and Volunteer Coordinator. Except the last four alphabets in her surname she had no links with the Himalayas. But she is now the Co-founder, Waste Warriors, Dehradun. An NGO that dedicatedly works towards tackling India’s ‘garbage crisis’ and has chapters in Dehradun, Dharamsala and Corbett National Park. Because of her constant and larger scale work she has earned the nickname of “Garbage Girl”.

In any tourist spots especially in the hills it is common to see all kinds of trash, plastic bags, water bottles, glass and more lying around. These were left behind by ‘tourists’ who came there to enjoy the beauty of nature, but their reckless actions are turning the hills, valleys and waterbodies less attractive for those coming after them and making  life miserable for the residents who  live  there for life.

But Underhill, then a young tourist from Britain, this was a lesson in life and mission to cure. Though hailing from a far-off sea shore, she has taken up this as a mission. She came to the Himalayas in 2008 and was mesmerised by its sheer size and beauty. But she was also aghast at the colossal waste people live behind. Her mission is now helping clean up over 6,500 metric tonnes of solid waste from two major Himalayan states - Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh which see very high tourist footfalls.

Underhill, who calls herself Garbage Girl, already had some experience volunteering for many projects back home, launched an organization called ‘Mountain Cleaners’ and organized weekly cleanup from  Triund.  In  2012, she registered an NGO, Waste Warriors, with a dream to  clean up the entire country. Today, the Dehradun-based NGO works in several locations, including Dharamshala, Bir, Kasauli, Govind Pashu Vihar Wildlife Sanctuary, Mussoorie, Rishikesh and Corbett Tiger Reserve.

“We are focusing on the northern part of the Himalayan region, in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. We work with the local communities, administration and other stakeholders in these tourist spots. In most of these places, the majority of the waste generated comes from non- locals who come to visit there,” a spokesperson of Waste Warriors told Indiatimes.

It is estimated that tourism- related activities generate over 8.4 million MT of waste per annum in the Himalayan region, and with improvement in connectivity, which makes travelling to these hills easier, the mountain of trash left behind by tourists is expected to grow in the future. But this poses a challenge to the local administration and tourism stakeholders, who often cannot meet the challenge.

“In many places, especially in remote areas, there are no waste collection or pick up facilities. So we work with the administration and local communities there to provide this. Once the dry waste is picked up, it is brought to waste banks, where it is segregated and sent to material recovery facilities (MRF). We have four MRFs in Uttarakhand and Himachal. From the MRFs, the segregated waste is sent to local scrap dealers. We also have a project where we have collaborated with an SHG, which makes upcycled products from the textile waste we collect,” a spokesperson explained.

While tourism activity is increasing in the hills, their footfall is making the hills more vulnerable, affecting the lives of the local communities. It is important for tourists to be aware of their actions and the possible impact they can have on the people and the environment long after they leave.

“Respecting  the sanctity  of  the Himalaya and the communities and biodiversity  that inhabit this eco- sensitive region is critical. If the bigger picture of global warming seems distant for some, I urge them to attend at least one clean-up drive or visit a dumpsite hidden away from tourist areas, not just to see the magnitude of the issue but to feel it. This will intuitively urge one to start living and traveling more consciously, changing how we perceive our role in the fight against climate change,” Vishal Kumar, CEO of Waste Warriors, said.

Underhill’s mega contributions have not gone unnoticed. A British expatriate, and her work in India has brought her recognition in various forms such as the ‘Brand Icon Award’ by The Times of India and the ‘Green Hero Award’ by Center of Media Studies. The Amazing Indians award was presented by Anand Mahindra as Times of India Brand Icon, Service before Self and Grassroots Woman of the Decade awards.