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Waste Warriors

Waste Warriors

From humble beginnings as a one-woman endeavour to keep Dharamshala free of litter, Waste Warriors has grown into a powerful movement that addresses one of India’s ‘dirtiest’ problems.

Volunteers with waste collected from the weekly Bhagsunag Waterfall clean up in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Photo courtesy: Waste Warriors.

A Google search for ‘waste in the Himalaya’ throws up some very shocking results. Sample these headlines of news stories: ‘Himalayas in danger of becoming a giant rubbish dump’, ‘Plastic waste may trigger water bombs in Himalayas’, ‘Too much human faeces on Mount Everest, says Nepal’. Beyond these attention-grabbing headlines are some shocking facts and figures that reveal how waste generated by humans on treks to the mountains is contributing to global warming, melting glaciers, glacial lake outbursts, and ecosystem deterioration.

Following the recent ecological disasters in the region, individuals and organisations are waking up to the gravity of the dangers posed by improper land and waste management. When British national Jodie Underhill first came to India as a tourist in December 2008 and volunteered at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, the garbage situation in the mountains bothered her. In April 2009, she organised a mass clean up at McLeod Ganj. Over 100 people volunteered to clean the area reinforcing her belief that she wasn’t the only one who wished for cleaner surrounds. Waste Warriors was formed in 2012 and what started as a weekly waste-collection programme from Triund, a remote but garbage-stricken mountain camp located four hours away from McLeod Ganj, expanded to the Guna Mata temple, the Bhagsunag Waterfall, and then further to Dehradun and the Corbett landscape in Uttarakhand by 2013.

Waste Warriors now employs 55 permanent staff members across their Dehradun, Dharamsala and Corbett chapters. “Our employees work with utmost dedication despite many pitfalls. We are most grateful to those who volunteer with us both as interns and on a long-term basis at a pittance, sharing in and inspired by our aspirations,” says Shanti Verma, President, Waste Warriors.

The projects in Dehradun are based on a community-participation model, where after cleaning an area, staff is employed to collect waste and conduct waste management awareness drives for locals. In Dharamsala, a weekly hike is undertaken to Triund, where waste is collected on the trail, from tea shops and at the camp site; and segregated, to be brought back to their headquarters in Bhagsu. They also provide a door-to-door waste collection service for the residents of Bhagsu, apart from conducting weekly clean ups at the Bhagsu Waterfall. In Corbett, Waste Warriors collect, process, transport, store and dispose waste from 800 homes, 200 shops, 16 schools and seven hotels from 18 locations, which include 17 villages and a forest office in Ramnagar town. They aim to take this project to over 120 villages across 100 sq. km., where waste management systems are non-existent. “It’s really easy and very much possible, if we put our minds to it,” says Minakshi Pandey, Project Manager, Waste Warriors Corbett. The success of the Corbett chapter has been facilitated by the support of Club Mahindra and Anand Mahindra, who donated Rs. 25 lakh each for one year of operations. Waste Warriors have a ‘no-burning policy’ and segregate all the collected waste, of which organic matter is composted, recyclables sold to local recyclers and only non-recyclables sent to dumping yards. After conducting a clean-up drive, their staff works hard to maintain the area by placing dustbins, and encouraging people, through awareness campaigns, to use them. Waste Warriors works with Microsoft on a programme called ‘Create to Inspire’, which provides guidance to teachers on how to conduct environmental activities for students to inspire them to make positive changes in their own lifestyles. Special days are set aside for children every month, where they are taught about waste management through art, crafts and games.

In recognition of the organisation’s work, CEO and co-founder Jodie was awarded the Amazing Indians Award in 2012, the Assocham Grassroots Women of the Decade award in 2014 and the Service Above Self award by Rotary International in 2015. The organisation also received a grant of four lakh rupees from the Mahindra Rise competition that supports new ideas. Their efforts to recycle 98 per cent of the waste generated at the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon in 2013 and making the Shimla Ultra Marathon in 2014 a zero waste event drew acclaim from all quarters. Triund, from where it all began, is now known as one of the cleanest hiking destinations in India.

“Working with waste in India was never meant to be an easy task, but people are slowly starting to realise the importance of our work. We are creating models that will one day change the way waste is managed and perceived across India,” says Jodie.

Author: Anirudh Nair, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 6, June 2015.


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