A few years ago, a British girl cleaning up the touristy areas in Mcleodganj became a roaring sensation for people over there. Popular by the name of ‘Garbage Girl’, she could be easily found collecting litter from here and there, in the mountains. In a short span of time, she became famous for organizing clean-up drives. Her passion and wit made to the daily news headlines, that people served themselves along with their morning tea. This was Jodie Underhill, the founder of Waste Warriors, (known as ‘The Mountain Cleaners’ at that time) a voluntary organization committed for a cleaner India.
It is through India Fellow that I have got an opportunity to work with the Waste Warriors Society. From the time when I was informed about it, I started doing my initial research about the organization through its website and social media channels. It filled me with immense motivation and excitement to know about the kind of work the team was doing here. It was a heartfelt desire to meet Jodie and know about her journey of starting this organization. But, unfortunately, she had already left for Britain because of health issues, before I reached. On the basis of my experience until now, I believe that your interaction with the founder of an organization can better elucidate their vision and purpose which otherwise demands a few weeks of dedicated research.
Recently, I got to know many things about Jodie through Bunty*. He owns a truck that we have hired for plastic waste collection under the UNDP project supported by Coca Cola : plastic waste recycling program. To meet new people and organizations, we hire his truck on a daily basis and I often go with him to purchase waste. He told me that earlier, he was one of the ‘Green Workers’ in Waste Warriors itself. Green Worker is a term we use for our field staff as they contribute directly to make our city clean. Later, Bunty bought his own truck and left the job to run his own business. He vividly remembers many stories of Jodie and proudly says that Jodie ma’am used to take me as her driver to the most places.
Bunty is slightly self-obsessed. He owns a truck and does not need to work elsewhere to earn money. He doesn’t really believe in behaving respectfully with other people. Most of his sentences start with slangs and abuses. I usually sit in front of the truck, next to him and hear his reviling for many vehicles obstructing his way. Whether they listen or not is never his concern. But when Bunty talks about his time with Jodie, the devotion in his voice can be easily sensed. With a humble tone, he gives all the credit of what he has become now, to Jodie. With great enthusiasm and amazement he says, ‘Bhaaisaab, kya aurat thi vo!’ (Bro, what an amazing lady she was!)
He believes that it is only because of Jodie that this organisation has found its roots in Dehradun. All the green workers are feeding their families because of her. He says that she is full of energy and dedication. Even while traveling in a truck, she would often ask to halt whenever she would notice piles of litter or garbage on the road. Stepping out of truck, she’d pick the waste. Her actions inspired many others who’d show up occasionally in the clean-up drives. According to Bunty, it felt shameful as an Indian since a woman from another country was working hard to keep it clean while most of us acted ignorant.
She was never bothered about what the society will think of her, and only cared for cleanliness. Many a times, she smartly admonished people who littered on roads in front of her. They wouldn’t dare to even utter a word as she had earned herself a name in the city, for her commitment to the cause. “Sir…You must go and see the public toilets in Mandi. They used to be in such disgusting state that you and I would not even dare to stand there for a minute. But thanks to Jodie that it has improved. She would simply put on her gloves and clean the mess”, says Bunty. Social stigma and stereotypes never affected her. She did what she felt like doing. An animal lover she used to pet and take care of 10 puppies, 2 of who, Tiny and Candy, are still here.
Jodie’s work has set standards for all of us in the organization. Often, I have come across people who don’t know about Waste Warriors but they recall it by Jodie’s name. They still remember her work and identify the organization with that. India Fellow terminology for the fellows who set high standards to follow, is ‘Ghost Fellow’. They leave their practices and anecdotes and the new fellows, whether they want it or not, are constantly compared with the old ones who have worked in the same teams. Similarly, here, Jodie’s name prevails everywhere we go. Even though, she has gone back and visits occasionally now, her presence still can be felt among the people and places in the city. Be it any monthly meeting in the office premises or the board meeting, we all are always mindful of staying authentic to the vision and sole objective of the organization. I can say that Jodie’s ghost is still guiding us to follow the path.
Personally, I find many things to learn from Jodie’s journey. Oscillating to and fro between decisions of different career choices, it’s through Jodie’s story that I find it a good reason to allow my heart to dictate my actions.
* Featured Image from http://wastewarriors.org/
* Name changed to protect identity