If we think that our cities and towns are polluted and littered with garbage, take a moment to think about the fragile ecosystem which is constantly under threat in the Himalayan regions. Every year, thousands of tourists who make a beeline to popular hill stations to beat the summer heat leave back a whole trail of ecological disasters. They litter the area with plastic and all sorts of garbage! Several NGOs and environmentalists are working relentlessly at these very hill stations to clean up the mess that we tourists so mercilessly create.
Home to 1/5th of the world’s population, India faces a huge problem of garbage disposal due to lack of awareness, education and infrastructure. Most of the time, the waste is burnt, left lying around along the roadsides, dumped in forest areas or are disposed of into water bodies only to pollute our environment further.
Mountain Cleaners is one such unique non-profit organisation that has set up waste collection drives in popular hill stations in northern India and is actively involved in community clean up hikes, education programs to help create awareness, promote the concept of recycling and distribute and empty dustbins in the surrounding areas.
How did it all begin
Meet 35-year-old British national Jodie Underhill, the founder of Mountain Cleaners, who came to India to volunteer for the Tibetan Children’s Village as she sponsors two Tibetan children. Little did she know that she will end up cleaning up our mess as she didn’t want the beauty of the region to be destroyed by indiscriminate pollutants. Setting up base in Mcleod Ganj in 2009, Jodie started organising clean up drives in the area, only to be nicknamed as the ‘Garbage Girl’. The clean ups and open support for her initiatives were a catalyst that encouraged her to start an organisation called Mountain Cleaners.
Armed with passion and a drive to make a change along with likeminded team members, Jodie and the Mountain Cleaners have come a long way. In the beginning, they found it difficult to recruit Indian volunteers but this year the number of Indian volunteers has rocketed.
Funding is an ongoing problem but thanks to a competition hosted by Mahindra Group a solution could be soon at hand. Mahindra has created a platform called Spark the Rise to propel innovation, entrepreneurship, and positive change in India and are giving a total of 52 grants.
“We have an amazing opportunity and all we need is for people to support us by voting and spreading the word. Unless people get behind us and show us their support we can’t help. With a single vote people can help us to build an organisation that could one day potentially benefit all of India.” says founder Jodie Underhill.
Mountain Cleaners started weekly waste collections from popular trekking destination Triund in 2009 and from Guna Devi Temple this April 2011 onwards. The group now a registered trust has also started clean up hikes to Kareri Lake, has only 3 paid members of staff and relies on volunteers and donations to continue its work.
How can you help?
So far, eminent groups like WWF-India, Tetra Pak and the Manimahesh Trust have extended support and financial assistance for the commendable work being done by the Mountain Cleaners. Like any non-profit organisation, Mountain Cleaners is in need of funds, volunteers and support from all corners of the world.
People like you and me, who come from big cities and can’t make it in person; can start by supporting them through donations and voting for them in the ‘Spark the Rise’ contest being conducted by Mahindra. The first prize is worth 40 lakh (£60,000) and the winners are chosen by the number of votes received and a panel of judges.
To vote, follow the link – http://www.sparktherise.com/projectdetail.php?pid=5443 (Sign up using your Facebook ID to vote. I just did, now it’s your turn!)
“We need a garbage truck, waste containers, more staff and additional dustbins if our projects are to succeed. Our work is in constant financial jeopardy but winning a grant would change that. We’re all busy, but I hope that people take a minute out of their hectic schedule to vote for us and share the link.”
Projects at Mountain Cleaners
Jodie gives us a list of projects that are presently being undertaken by Mountain Cleaners.
Triund Waste Collection Program
One of the first projects taken up by The Mountain Cleaners was the Triund Waste Collection Program that has been running continuously since March 2010. “We recruit volunteers to go up to the mountain camp, which is a four-hour hike from Mcleod Ganj, every Monday to segregate and sort the trash at the tea shops and guest houses. On Tuesdays the volunteers scale the slopes as they clear the backlog from previous years,” says Jodie.
Guna Devi Temple
Every Saturday, Mountain Cleaners armed with a team of volunteers, trek 3 hours to the sacred Gaddi Temple, cleaning the trail as they hike. Jodie mentions, “Hundreds of pilgrims visit the temple every week leaving behind huge amounts of garbage. The temple area is cleaned and the waste is segregated and sorted ready to be bought down by the mules.”
Kareri Village and Lake
She further adds, “ The road to Kareri Village that has been under construction for several years is on its way to completion and this will transform this idyllic location into a popular tourist spot. This road will lead to thousands of people visiting the campsite every year, while they leave behind garbage and waste to be burnt or thrown into the forest which in turn causes the lake to become more polluted. To counteract this, Mountain Cleaners have started 3-day clean up hikes to clear the trash.”
A change in the mindset can be only brought about through education and creating awareness. Jodie says, “We regularly go into schools and conduct Children’s Days on the last Sunday of every month, where we teach the kids about the environment through activities, games, artwork and ‘garbage crafts’ using discarded items. These events are a great way for us to teach children about civic pride and the importance of taking care of nature.”
Campaigning and Publicity
The secret of bringing about a positive change lies in education along with support from personalities and celebrities so that it has a wider reach. “We get help from Bollywood stars and cricket players to convey the message that our communities should be clean like our homes. Players from Kings XI Punjab attended a children’s painting competition held by Mountain Cleaners and spoke highly of our initiatives. Adam Gilchrist offered to do some publicity for Mountain Cleaners in 2012,” adds Jodie.
Recyclables Collection and Dustbins
Jodie mentions, “We have purchased and painted 10 dustbins that have been distributed around Bhagsu, that are emptied by Mountain Cleaners staff on a daily basis.” A waste and recycling station has been set up at Galu with further recycling drop-off stations planned for Bhagsu. Mountain Cleaners are hopeful for an approval for improving the towns’ waste container area from the local municipality.
“We annually conduct clean up and recycling campaigns at this popular pilgrimage. We run a waste management program alongside Sulabh International and aim to bring back as much waste as we can to maximise recycling and minimise dumping and burning. By working with the local schools and Panchayat we encouraged them to set a waste disposal system in Bharmour,” says Jodie.
Mountain Cleaners also organise special activities, mass clean-ups and events in the community and schools and celebrate occasions like 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’ ” concludes Jodie.
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