I first heard about Mountain Cleaners when I was writing Road to Leh Series on my blog. I appreciated their work and deep down inside, I thanked them for their good work. However, even then I did not know much about Jodie Underhill, the founder of the organization.
Recently, during one of my nomadic travels, I was at Dharamsala. At Dharamkot, standing outside a restaurant, I saw three young ladies talking to a municipal worker, who was cleaning the roads. And that got me curious, I walked up to them and asked, “Are you people associated with the Mountain Cleaners?”
“Yes, we are, said one of them, “she is the founder”. And she pointed towards the lady sitting to her right, busy eating her breakfast (in a hurry).
And I was awestruck.
Now it’s your turn.
Meet the Lady
TG: What brought you to India?
JU: I wanted to come to India for as long as I can remember. I came to travel and to volunteer for the Tibetan Childrens Village as I sponsor two Tibetan children. I originally stayed in McleodGanj but when I came to Bhagsu for a day, I fell in love with the place and decided to move here. And believe me, first impressions have been the same all over India, a beautiful place but too much garbage everywhere. The garbage discarded everywhere troubled me every single day so and I decided to do something about it.
The Garbage Girl
JU: I started to organize mass clean ups in March 2009 but soon realized that just cleaning up wasn’t going to solve the problem. We had to find a long term solution. I became known as Garbage Girl and everywhere I went people told me about a place that needed cleaning. One place that was repeatedly mentioned was Triund, a four hour hike from Mcleod Ganj so I decided to take gloves, bags and volunteers up there to see what we could do. This was start of the Mountain Cleaners.
TG:Mountain Cleaners: What and How
JU: The environment is everything around us. Air, water, earth, plants, animals, nature, all the things that man needs to live but doesn’t appreciate. Human beings have done more damage and have taken more natural resources in the past 50 years than since the beginning of humankind. It is crucial that we start protecting Mother Earth instead of destroying it not just for our sakes but for future generations. Long term goals are a cleaner, greener India and hopefully our models and projects can be replicated across the world. It is important that we start working together. There are lots of environmental organizations in India and we mustn’t forget that the benefits of a waste management system are very much social too. A cleaner, safer environment, improved hygiene, uncontaminated drinking water, improved conditions and income for those working with waste and ultimately an increase in tourism.
Our projects are funded solely by donations so we can achieve as much as our funds allow. The focus is on affordable solutions for everyone so we try and keep the costs to a minimum. We have been promised full funding for the Manimahesh Yatra 2011 by Holi Bajoli Hydroelectric Project. Last year’s Yatra was funded by the Yatra Committee which is managed by government officials so it’s good to see the government taking responsibility and supporting initiatives such as these.
We did face problems initially. There were a few problems involving registration but now we are about to register as a section 25 company (not for profit). This means that any profits we make we have to spend furthering the aims of our organization, new clean up projects/education, dustbins etc.
What is garbage? Let me define it for you.
Garbage is just empty packaging, the same thing we eat and drink from and our biggest challenge is to change people’s perception towards it. The caste system in India means that the majority of people refuse to touch waste as they believe this is a job for the ragpickers/dalits. We are increasingly getting more Indian volunteers and are hearing from Indian organizations who want to help and learn about waste management.
Luckily, every problem has a solution and our problems are also the common ones, those who come with a solution. Mountain Cleaners cannot and will not ever stop. We are here forever and our work will continue long after I am gone. If we end our programs, things would go back to the way they were before but if we encourage, educate and support then the ripple effect will ensure that our projects will expand and eventually cover all of India.
The Education Program
JU: The Main Aim is Educating. An educated person will be guided by his inner voice, which means he/she would need no Jodie Underhill to clean the garbage.
The waste management system in India is insufficient but that is understandable when you take into account that India has 1/5th of the world’s population and only achieved independence in the 50’s. Corruption has also slowed India’s progress. There are too many places that have no waste management at all and too many people not adhering to the system when there is one in place such as in Bhagsu. Why throw waste down a hillside when there is a waste container within walking distance?? The government needs to act fast to ensure that this changes.
Lack of education is the primary reason followed by habit. If your entire family have throw garbage on the ground or in the river for generations how are you to know not to do it? Mountain Cleaners are not here to criticize but to educate and offer an alternative solution. Mountain Cleaners has already touched the lives of thousands of people. The education program has been useful but many people learn a better way of dealing with waste after seeing what we do or getting involved in some way. Recycling is the solution to India’s waste crisis. Volunteers have left Dharamsala feeling inspired and although it took some time to convince the chai shops and guest houses at Triund they finally understand and enjoy having clean surroundings that are admired and respected by the people that visit.
JU: I am a big fan of the voluntary sector as it contributes massively to society and is extremely rewarding for everyone involved. However we want to generate jobs and create employment opportunities so we will utilize both paid staff and volunteers. It is important that we use re-usable and biodegradable products whenever we can. Reducing and recycling as much as possible reduces the amount going to landfill. We recycle approximately 80% of what we collect so if all of India was doing this just think of the benefits.
Any to-do list?
And this opens the floodgates.
1. Say NO to dumping in rivers, you are polluting water; it’s what people drink – just think about it! Reduce burning as much as you can especially plastic, it’s extremely dangerous and toxic.
2. Talk about India, chat about it online or with friends, school mates or colleagues. Talk about its beauty and the fact that our forests, waterways and mountains are being destroyed by garbage. Why is having a dirty country just accepted instead of challenged and addressed?
3. Save your shiny sweet wrappers, foils, offcuts of fabric, cardboard tubes etc and donate them to your local school for arts n crafts activities.
4. Volunteer, it’s great fun. Find out if there any environmental organizations in your area. If you don’t have time make a donation to an org that’s doing something nice for nature. It’s a tough task and we need all the help we can get.
5. Get informed and inspired, check out the following websites, www.theuglyindian.com, www.wwfindia.org/greenhiker, www.almitrapatel.com, www.nswai.com/waste-municipal-solid-waste.php, and http://www.iycn.in.
Let’s not forget our website www.mountaincleaners.org and our Facebook page http://facebook.com/MountainCleaners . Get in touch and share your stories with us. Have you cleaned up your area or tried some of the above suggestions.
6. Once a Mountain Cleaner always a Mountain Cleaner. Remember, a clean world is what we want. If we can make ourselves look better, why can’t we make our surroundings look better? We just need to wake up.
7. Come to Manimahesh Yatra 2011, be blessed by Lord Shiva and help us make that place look clean. We are reaching there on 1st of August, anyone wanting to volunteer need to get in touch with us [click here] and get ready for action. Your help will be appreciated.
Know the MC Team : The Cleaning Team
Write to Jodie @ firstname.lastname@example.org
Mountain Cleaners @ Facebook
Visit Mountain Cleaners @ http://mountaincleaners.org/
P.S: While I was still wondering, she finished her breakfast and went inside the primary school, to educate the kids. Afterall, right education is the need of time. I promised her that I will see her in Manimahesh.