The Mountain Cleaners: Cleaning up India’s most visited pilgrimage trails


How many times have we complained about the garbage on our roads and all around us? The ones among us who have had the opportunity to go to popular hill stations, tourist destinations and pilgrimage spots will bear testimony to the absolute recklessness with which garbage is strewn all around these areas, making them breeding grounds for disease-spreading germs and insects. But how many of us have actually done something about it? How many of us have picked up the trash and put it where it belongs? Meet one lady who has.

UK-born Jodie Underhill, along with her group of volunteers, has been cleaning up some of the most visited pilgrimage trails of India in the Himalayan belt. Not only do they hike up the pilgrims’ trail picking up trash along the way, they also segregate, recycle and manage the waste responsibly. In addition to this, they conduct programs to educate people (especially children) about the environment, try to find solutions for waste-related problems like access to clean water, health and sanitation problems and the way careless waste disposal affects animal and wildlife.

Here are some of the answers we sought from the “Garbage Girl” herself:

Jodie Underhill, Founder of The Mountain Cleaners

Jodie Underhill, Founder of The Mountain Cleaners

What brought you to India?

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 I decided to do something about it.

A collection team following pilgrims and cleaning up the trash is a wonderfully unique idea. What made you come up with the idea of Mountain Cleaners?

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 the start of the Mountain Cleaners.

What are the aims of The Mountain Cleaners?

  • Provide and promote sustainable waste management systems in India
  • Provide environmental education and recycling programs in schools and communities
  • Improve and maintain public spaces
  • Educate and raise environmental awareness whilst promoting and encouraging civic pride
  • Promote, sell and use environmentally friendly and recycled products
  • Provide voluntary, employment and training opportunities

Long term Aims:

  • To secure funding for a recycling factory in Himachal (other factories to follow)
  • To run national campaigns throughout India
  • To set up waste management systems across Indi

What happens to all the garbage that you collect on your trails?

Waste is collected and segregated into two simple categories – recyclable and, non recyclable waste. It is then separated into 10 different categories – plastic bottles, glass, glass bottles, metal, plastic bags, hard plastic, Tetra Pak, paper, cardboard, textiles/shoes. Until 2 days ago we had no storage so the recyclables were passed on to our waste workers and local rag pickers so they could get some extra income. Non recyclable waste goes in the town’s waste container which is emptied at the dumpsite in Dharamsala. In places like Triund plastic bottles make up the largest amount of waste so around 80% is recycled. If all waste was segregated at source we would be able to recycle this much everywhere, food waste reduces recycling potential as well as attracting flies and animals and making the job smelly and dirty. We need to be aware of the waste we generate and start thinking about where it goes!

What are the areas and trails that you cover on your collection drives?

As of now, we cover Triund (a 4-hour hike from McLeodGunj), Guna Devi temple, Kareri Village plus Lake and the Manimahesh Yatra.

Are there other projects you conduct besides garbage collection?

Dustbins installed at Bhagsu

Dustbins installed at Bhagsu

Yes, we organise special activities, mass clean-ups and events in the community and schools to celebrate occassions such as World Environment Day, Earth Day etc. We’ve undertaken several art projects to improve unsightly areas and to convey a Clean n Green message while raising awareness about the importance of “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle”.

We also know that the key to change lies with education. Players from Kings XI Punjab recently attended a painting competition conducted by us. We are enlisting the support of Bollywood stars and cricket players to convey the message that our communities should be clean like our homes.

How do you manage to sustain your initiative? Any challenges that you have faced in accomplishing your goals?

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.

 

The Manimahesh Yatra is underway. And they need your help! Go and volunteer with Jodie’s team – contact her at
Website: http://www.mountaincleaners.org/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MountainCleaners
E-mail: info@mountaincleaners.org

Job/volunteer opportunities at the Mountain Cleaners are listed at our Jobs page.

Also, do check out this video titled “On the Triund Trail“. It will give you a wonderful narrative on how the Mountain Cleaners go about doing their work!

We at The Better India believe that the work carried out by The Mountain Cleaners is simply wonderful! The least we can do to help their cause is not litter our public places.

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Add your thoughts about this story:


  • http://thebutterflydiaries.wordpress.com/category/nandadevi/ Ashwin Baindur

    Its great to see the movement. However, it is pertinent to point out that this is not something new. The  Indian Army Nandadevi expedition of 1993 cleaned up all the camps on the way from outside the Sanctuary to the Base camp. We brought more than a ton of garbage back, paying porters to carry them back to roadhead as paid for loads on return trips.

  • http://thebutterflydiaries.wordpress.com/category/nandadevi/ Ashwin Baindur

    The question of priority is only of historic interest. It is amazing that someone should come from another land and care for our land and our people. Indeed, Jodi holds a place of great esteem in my view of things, If only we loved our land as much as she loves ours!

  • Jodie (aka Garbage Girl)

    Thanks for your support everyone. Just to remind you that we are in desperate need of volunteers for our Manimahesh Yatra Clean Up Campaign. We have 5 base camps over a distance of 20kms and with 800,000 pilgrims we have a mighty task ahead of us. We will be here until 30th September. Please spread the word for us via Twitter and Facebook etc. For more details contact jodie@mountaincleaners.org

  • Subhash

    It is thought provocative;we generally travel as tourist/trekker/Pilgrim but hardly take a serious look as to what will happen once we leave that place,Also we keep blaming previous visitor ,locals,or tour operators/managers for leaving the place shabby.
    We must therefore visit these places only for cleaning the mess for which we ourselves are responsible.

    I would like to see how I can join this movement. Just now I returned from Amarnath/Vaishodevi/Leh;
    my address skgawarikar@@yahoo:disqus.co.in;cell 09868268420

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