Activists in India Uniting Against the Waste Problem

Yes, India is big. Yes, India has a major problem regarding waste. The Ganges, the biggest river in India, has been rated D, which means excessive pollution according to the Uttarakhand Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board (UEPPCB). One of the reasons is the waste pumped into it. The population growth is fast and with 1.2 billion people living there, it is the second most-populated country after China. This is a big challenge! But did you know that India has the most NGOs in the world? According to International Guide Star there are 3.3 million.

Captain Planet & the Waste Problem

Raghuvir Das

Have you heard of Captain Planet? It’s an American TV show from the 90s, where the ‘planeteers’ help defend the world from pollution caused by criminals. Raghuvir Das, a 25 year old environmentalist watched this as a kid, and that was his inspiration to dedicate his life to the planet. After his master’s degree in environment development, he took part in the Gandhi Fellowship which helped him push his boundaries, learn new things and made him realize what kind of career he wanted. He is now part of Development Alternatives, an NGO working to create models that generate sustainable livelihoods. He is also working on establishing a Let’s Do It! movement and get people on board for his first mission. He is a planeteer now, part of the change he wants to see in the world.

“People have studied the waste composition in India, and we figured out that slightly more than 50% of the waste is compostable, organic waste,” Raghuvir explains.

This is the direction they are going actually, trying to bring the culture of composting to the people, which would reduce waste tremendously. As everything is now dumped into huge landfills, a massive amount of food waste is contributing to raising greenhouse emissions, which can actually be easily avoided.

Raghuvir’s biggest inspiration now is Afroz Shah, nominated 2016 champion of the Earth by the U.N. Together with the people of Mumbai, he started to clean Versova beach every week end. So far, they have collected over 4,000 tons of trash from this 2,5 kilometer beach. “His simplicity, that he doesn’t care about what people are going to say or do, his pacifism, it’s really what has struck me.”

An English Woman Became the “Garbage Girl” in India

And then there’s an English woman, Jodie Underhill who settled in India, waging a war against trash. She’s now called the “Garbage Girl” because of her passion towards reducing waste pollution. Having grown up in England, the contrast was big as she recalled in India.

“I came to India after spending my twenties travelling the world, and I was just devastated to see how much garbage is everywhere” says Jodie.

That’s why she decided to stay in India, and after a few years she created the Waste Warriors, with a mission to clean up India from waste. She arrived in Gandhi’s country in December 2008. In April 2009, she organized her first clean-up event in McLeod Ganj – North India, gathering over 100 people. Jodie recalls it was nice to see people caring about this issue. From that action on, her journey for a clean India began.

Together with her team of 60 people, she is working now in three different locations in North India, close to the Himalayan mountains. Part of their work also includes waste collection, educational programs, waste management consultancy, etc.

Jodie’s team is aiming to take their educational program nation-wide, in fact, world-wide, creating a toolkit that teachers can use to run activities with their students. Changing the habits of older people is difficult, this is why Jodie thinks that educating the young generation is so important: “For the kids, it’s not very difficult to change their habits, they can understand that littering is not good, they realize what they should do and are actually able to change their behaviour and do those things.”

The Waste Warriors. Jodie Underhill in the front row (third from the left).

Raising the Status of Waste Workers

After the government came up with a qualification for waste workers, Jodie’s group is also going to become a training center “which is a massive milestone for an organization to know that the government is taking this seriously” comments Jodie. As the whole of India needs a waste management system, they are going to be busy with the huge workforce that needs to be trained.

Raghuvir concurs with Jodie, and admits that there is a lack of concept of dignity of labour. This is something that needs to change and according to Jodie, they are the organization to address that issue.

Jodie explains: “We want our workers to understand that they fit into a big picture. They are not just somebody who picks up some trash, they are way more than that! They should feel really proud of what they are doing. I mean, without the waste workers, India would have disappeared in its own trash. These people are not recognized, or appreciated, but they are doing such an amazing job here. This is one of our objectives as an organization, to improve the conditions of people who work with waste, and give them the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Taking part in national events for waste management is also one of the goals of the Waste Warriors. They have organized – the waste management – of events for up to 20 000 people, and are now ready to take it to the next level. For example, being part of the Mumbai or Delhi marathon where 50 000 people run the distance. Even more, they aim to train people to manage the waste in these kind of events, as according to Jodie, they are probably the only organization to offer professional training courses linked to that.

A big achievement of the Waste Warriors was also to bring a system of waste management to the Corbett area stretching over 120 villages and 100 km. It’s under their “Corbett Projects” were they collect waste from 3000 members, households and companies, in 48 locations. There is now more than 30 people working in this area.

Start-Ups Are Making Waste Their Business

Gaurav Sharma

Young entrepreneurs are also taking action regarding the waste problem. Gaurav Sharma, a 24-year old former engineer is one of them. After joining AIESEC (a student organization) and being in a company as a CEO for three years, he realized there should be something more a normal human being could do:  “I used to see lot of people talking about how the world is going to end or being negative about all the problems. Similarly, the majority of people feel that someone will come to rescue them from the waste problem. Then I realized I want to be solution oriented and to tell people that we can actually solve our own problems, if we intend to,” he shares his story.

Gaurav once read a quote from R. Buckminster Fuller, an architect and inventor from the USA saying: “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”

He understood the meaning behind these words perfectly and wanted to put garbage on the spotlight. This is why he created ‘Thankyou.

“We have been consuming so much, but we are not grateful to the Earth, or the people who are working in these particular societies to clean our waste” states Gaurav. The idea is to make people realize their ownership when it comes to waste. With his team, he’s going to offer solutions for waste management and also a platform for trading waste, for companies or even households. They started to build their project in 2016, and it’s going to be launched very soon.

All these people are connected, working with waste through different ways, in different locations, but they are also united for the Let’s Do It! World initiated World Cleanup Day 2018. They all share an ambition to live in a clean world. Together, united with 150 countries, they will be part of organizing massive waste cleanups. On the 15th of September 2018 hundreds of millions of people like Raghuvir, Jodie and Gaurav will be taking real action.

Did You Know?

There are more remarkable initiatives connected to the waste problem in India. For instance, in 2000, Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, most known by the name Eco Baba, came with hundreds of people to clean a 160km river.

The government is now starting to follow the initiatives of Indian people, and after signing the COP21 agreement, Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India, has beaten down a world record. During just 24 hours, 800 000 people planted 50 million trees. The government has now unlocked important funds to cover 95 millions Ha with forests by 2030.

“This is all about perseverance. I have no doubt at all that at some point, things are going to change in this country” believes Jodie.


By Jérôme Scherer, Let’s Do It! World PR & Network Development Team