Jodie Underhill: India's Celebrated Garbage Girl
Like thousands of other British tourists, Jodie Underhill arrived in India in December 2008. She was then 32 and wanted to see what was so unique about the “Incredible India”. She visited some of the touristy destinations such like Mumbai, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and went all the way down south to Kanyakumari. “I saw garbage everywhere on my entire trip; the train journeys particularly were heart breaking. On a long train journey north, I asked someone what to do with my trash, and in the blink of an eye he took it from me and flung it out of the window. I burst into tears and no one in the compartment could understand why I was so upset.”
She was born and raised in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk -- a family holiday destination. Her father is a civil engineer and owns a groundwork construction company. She has a brother and four half siblings. She did not opt to go to university and instead joined “the school of life”. She attended the British Racing School and spent much of her childhood riding horses. She wanted to be a jockey but it was not to be.
She was very forthcoming about her resume and what she did all these years. In her 20s, she travelled the world and did a variety of jobs to make that dream possible. She would work, save and then travel on a budget. “I worked as a fundraising assistant, volunteer coordinator for charities, a receptionist, a personal assistant and a legal editor to name a few. I gave my very best in every job that I did. One might imagine that I was a rolling stone. Yes, I was one but unlike other rolling stones, I had gathered a lot of moss. Now I realize that all of those jobs gave me the experience and skills I need to successfully run an NGO,” she elaborates.
It was her first visit to India, and all that she saw nauseated her. She had travelled quite extensively but never did she come across such open ‘acceptance’ of garbage that she found in India. She finally arrived in February 2009 at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala where she had volunteered to do letter writing workshops for the ‘sponsorship’ secretaries. While Dharamsala’s pristine beauty captivated her, the big mounds of garbage there greatly repulsed her. She decided to do something about the garbage menace. Her compatriot-tourists returned home after a month or so but she stayed on back in India, it seems forever. “Que sera, sera” (Whatever will be, will be). If it was her destiny, so be it,” Jodie mused.
“I didn’t choose garbage, it chose me! When I witnessed how severe India’s garbage problem is, it completely broke my heart. I also realized then that I’d found my life’s mission,” she says somewhat philosophically.
Jodie’s determination led to the formation of “The Mountain Cleaners”, a voluntary organization that collected weekly waste from a remote garbage infested mountain camp. More volunteers were recruited and asked to segregate and sort the waste from tea shops and guest houses. Even the popular hiking trails did not escape the attention of “The Mountain Cleaners”.Today her team is engaged in general cleaning up, weekly collection of waste from remote areas and running waste collection service both from homes and businesses. “There is no shortage of volunteers; even foreign visitors too offered their services,” recalls Jodie.
After Dharamsala, Jodie and her enthusiastic volunteers dreamt of extending their cleanup drives to other parts of India. Dehra Dun was the next destination. Thus was born in September 2012 the “Waste Warriors” with Jodie as its co-founder.That was the beginning of a war against filth and garbage. Today, the Waste Warriors is a well organized entity headed by Ms. Shanti Varma, the award winning former principal of the famed Welham Girls’ School. A few of the leading citizens too have extended their helping hand by way of generous donations. The Waste Warriors have done a remarkable job here in transforming and maintaining several business and residential localities. One hundred schools are now part of Waste Warriors’ environmental educational program funded by MICROSOFT. It also holds regular clean-up drives, conducts waste management training programs and raises general awareness. Lately, it has extended its waste collection services to eight villages on the outskirts of the city.
India’s famous Jim Corbett Park near Ramnagar in Nainital district too has been brought under its orbit. In Mr. Anand Mahindra of Mahindra & Mahindra Group, the Waste Warriors have found a great benefactor who alone has sponsored the entire Corbett project. He has also donated two Mahindra Boleros – one for Dehra Dun and the other for the Corbett project. Its main focus is to install a waste management system in all of the villages in the southern, eastern and northern boundaries of Corbett Tiger Reserve that will cover 100 villages stretching over 100 kilometers. Waste Warriors currently runs a waste collection service in 43 locations including 37 villages on the perimeter of the Tiger Reserve.
Bollywood celebrity Aamir Khan has become another of the enthusiastic supporters of Waste Warriors. He gave a whopping 90 minutes to Jodie Underhill and her colleague Shraddha Zende when they met her in Mumbai in July last. He had then shown a genuine interest in “Clean India”. Aamir has promised to feature Swachh Bharat in his Satyamev Jayate whenever it returns to the small screen.
Jodie says that the ‘Perseverance’ has been the principal reason for the success of the Waste Warriors. “We often hear people say there is no point cleaning a public place as it will get dirty again to which I reply ‘Don't we clean our homes and maintain our own personal hygiene every day?’ Cleaning the outside is equally as important. Before every clean-up drive, we do an educational briefing so that people can work safely and understand our methods of segregation at source. We provide proper equipment including gloves, litter grabbers and bags for recyclable and non recyclable waste and ensure that everyone understands what goes into each bag before the clean-up starts. My staff is committed to the cause and very passionate about what we do; its passion is so infectious that it quickly fills volunteers with enthusiasm,” adds Jodie with passion.
To a question, “what is the main cause for the lacklustre performance of Prime Minister Modi’s “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” and how would she rejuvenate it if the Prime Minister were to make her its in charge?” Her reply came from ‘dil se’. “The cleaning up of the vast country such like India is not a task just for the Prime Minister. The entire government machinery and each one of us in the country has to do his or her bit,” she says.
However, this is “easier said than done”. We will need to ensure that all existing laws are enforced. The Police should be imposing fines, not just for traffic offences but also for littering and dumping. In the West, we don't segregate our waste because we are all good citizens but we do that to save ourselves from fines if we don’t, she chuckles.
“I would further propose that waste management and environmental conservation were made part of the school curriculum, and that every school should have a waste management system in place. I would also like to see an environment tax for all products sold in non-recyclable packaging and to see that this money is exclusively used for disposing of the waste properly and purchasing the machinery required to recycle it. It has to be made mandatory for PWDs to use this low micron, non-recyclable plastic for constructing roads; as it has been proven that it makes them stronger and is an initiative soon to be started in Doon with the help of Waste Warriors. The methods and models that Waste Warriors use can be replicated on a large scale and we would love the opportunity to work with the government. What we are doing on a small scale could have massive results if replicated at national level,” Jodie concludes.
Has she any marriage plans?
“No, I have no such intentions. There are so many things I want to achieve with Waste Warriors and I don’t want anything to get in the way of that. In addition to that I think finding someone who would accept me for who I am would be tough, I have no money, am a workaholic, nearly 40, don’t want kids and work in the waste industry. Finding someone who would want to settle for that is a pretty tall order,” she says with a sense of finality.
Waste Warriors’ president Ms. Shanti Varma has high praise for Jodie’s dedication and commitment. “I have rarely met anyone with as much dedication and commitment consistently displayed as Jodie Underhill. She is genuinely passionate about her mission to restore the beauty of India by the wise and sustainable management of its waste. She works tirelessly, hands-on, twenty hours a day, without any monetary recompense, on a purely voluntary basis, under conditions that are often bleak and insalubrious. She never loses sight of her goal to keep India clean – and all for a country that is not hers by birth but by affiliation and affection. How many of us, I wonder, would do that? I am proud to be associated with her,” says Shanti of the colleague.
As the co-founder of a voluntary organization, she does not receive a salary. Waste Warriors provide her accommodation and meals. They also cover her visa fees. In June last year, she had visited her home in England after nearly two and a half years.Jodie has now made India her home with no plans to return to England.
Waste Warriors currently employ 60 full time staffers across its three operational areas. Much of its funding comes from corporate partners that include Mahindra & Mahindra, Microsoft, Nokia, Sud-Chemie Pvt Ltd, Globus Spirits and many other big and small companies. They recently received funding from the Thapar Charitable Public Trust exclusively for education and awareness for young people. Most of its projects are self-supporting and financed by the community partners by way of monthly donations. Waste Warriors conduct waste management training courses, educational and awareness raising programs, maintain the cleanliness of local communities and organize clean-up drives. They also provide a waste management service at an array of events such as the Airtel and Wipro marathons, national Pinkathon events, Dharamsala Cricket Stadium and festivals.Waste Warriors needs a lot more funds in order to support their expansion to new areas.
(Raj Kanwar is a Dehradun-based veteran journalist and author)