The Overseas Samaritan: Jodie Underhill

Underhill strives to remove the stigma attached to waste collection with her NGO

By Deepa Vaidya

Entrepreneur India
Jodie Underhill, Co-founder, Waste Warriors

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An avid horse-lover, a globe-trotter and also a former Legal Editor, Fundraising Assistant and Volunteer Co-ordinator, Jodie Underhill is 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.

Underhill has helped start a local community project in Lancashire and cleaning beaches throughout her travelling days, organised fundraising events for different charities and volunteered at the Salaam Balak Trust on her first visit to India. Says Underhill aka, 'Garbage Girl' "I have always loved helping people and giving my time for good causes."

If this looks obviously why she started her NGO, then the story of starting Waste Warriors is different and more interesting. She says, "I didn't choose India nor did I decide to start an NGO, it just happened that way. I think that sometimes the universe has plans for us that even we don't know about. I came to India as a tourist and to do letter writing workshops for the Tibetan Children's village. During all my travelling days I had never seen a country so garbage ridden as India and it absolutely broke my heart. In those situations, you have two choices, just walk away or decide to do something about it. I am very grateful that I chose the latter."

Picking up garbage in your own home is different. Doing it in another country where the size and intensity of the problem is grave, what was it like for her to dirty her hands in a different country? Says Underhill non-chalantly, "I have worked in the most disgusting areas, open dumpsites with rotting waste, sometimes human waste and dead animals but it never really bothered me that much. I did just one clean up without gloves and I ended up in hospital with an intestinal infection. I spent nearly a decade working with waste in India so just one hospital visit is not bad really. Picking up litter generally is not a dirty job, it's the same packets and bottles that someone has been eating from. The stigma attached to working with waste has to change and I feel that Waste Warriors has taken great strides towards that. If waste is segregated at source and processed as per the guidelines it's not a dirty job at all."

Speaking of the challenges when they started, and now, says Underhill, "When I first started out, it was before Shri Narendra Modi had launched the Swachh Bharat campaign so there was very little awareness regarding the importance of having a clean environment. We had very little funding and simply surviving was a challenge. People would stare at me and my volunteers as if we were crazy during clean-up drives. I was completely aware that it was essential that we worked with the Government but despite my best efforts it was difficult to get taken seriously."

"The challenges are very different now. Waste Warriors has just celebrated its 10th anniversary and there has been a lot of growth during that time. We are working in eight locations and our projects are much bigger now and we currently employ 160 people. Finding the right people to manage projects is an ongoing battle, it's a lot of responsibility and it takes a huge amount of commitment and drive. The waste crisis in India continues to grow, the population is expanding and so is consumerism."

For all their efforts, Underhill has received, "The Amazing Indians award presented by Anand Mahindra, Times of India Brand Icon, Service before Self and Grassroots Woman of the Decade awards."

"However, the biggest achievement is the fact that Waste Warriors has gone from strength to strength and that we are known as an honest and a hard-working organisation. We have engaged with over 2,00,000 people, processed over 6,000 MT of waste, and empowered 1,000+ waste workers," she adds.

"I am delighted that we have reduced the stigma attached to people working with waste and I am extremely proud of the team that we have now. It gives me a lot of joy to know how much we have helped people to grow as individuals and how we have had such a positive impact on people's lives. We are well respected by Government bodies and have great relationships with our donors and funders. We are truly blessed," adds Underhill.

She won the hearts of the natives too with her work. Says Underhill, "I was really taken care of whilst I was in India. People were very kind to me and did whatever they could to help. There is a famous saying in India that 'Guest is God' and that's really the way I was treated, with absolute kindness. Of course, there were hurdles and frustrations working with waste and sometimes people were very difficult, but you can't change mindsets overnight. People could see that my intentions were good, they knew I was doing everything in voluntary capacity and they respected me for that."

On their plans for the next 3-5 years she says, "Waste Warriors is currently focusing on the eco-sensitive Indian Himalayan region and have no plans to expand further afield just yet. However, I am confident that the models we are creating will one day be replicated across India and then in other countries with a similar waste issue."

"Also, we will be setting up waste management systems in and around all of the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Behavioural change is high on our agenda and we are striving to reach out to over one million people including locals and tourists coming to the Indian Himalayan Region. We are aiming to set up infrastructure for waste processing that will cater to over 5,00,000 people in eco-sensitive and rural areas. We will continue to empower Self Help Groups and will be working with local entrepreneurs. We will be partnering with academic institutions to research and report on the environmental and social impact of waste dumping and burning in the Himalayan region. So yes, we have a lot to do and it is all very exciting."

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