Jodie Underhill (on right) with Aamir Khan

This article is written by Jodie Underhill. Jodie Underhill, popularly known as ‘Garbage girl’ was born in 1976 in Great Yarmouth, England. She spent the majority of her twenties travelling the world and came to India in December 2008 as a tourist and to volunteer at the Tibetan Children’s Village in McLeod Ganj, Horrified by the extent of India’s garbage crisis she started organizing mass clean up’s in April 2009. She is the Co-Founder of Waste Warriors, an NGO working hard to tackling India’s garbage problem by creating models that can be replicated across India. Jodie’s challenging work has resulted in support from a number of celebrities including Aamir Khan, Anand Mahindra and Adam Gilchrist. She has received a number of awards including Times Now ‘Amazing Indians’, Assocham Ladies League ‘Grassroots Women of the Decade’, Rotary Club Mumbai ‘Service Before Self’ and the Times of India ‘Brand Icon’ award. 

Working with waste is undoubtedly one of the most challenging vocations and very few of us have the stomach for it but do we give credit to the thousands of people working in this industry? We are all familiar with the sight of street sweepers and rag pickers but do we really see them or are they simply the invisible saviours of our country? It is estimated that India has 40 lakh ragpickers with many of them starting work at 4-5 years of age.

 Many people believe that by littering they are keeping waste workers in jobs. When asked why they litter, the public often respond with “My one little piece of trash doesn’t make a difference”. Sadly they don’t realise that those small pieces accumulate and with a population of 1.2 billion, it’s not surprising that that our train tracks, roads and pretty much everywhere else in-between, is lined with garbage.

When Indians go to the West they use the dustbins, they don’t spit or urinate in public, they become more responsible and aware, thinking before acting. Can we also not do that here, in our own motherland?

In developed countries, Waste Workers are paid more than Admin Assistants, have proper equipment and their contribution to cleanliness is recognized and appreciated. Here in India, we still sweep with brooms made from grass that in other countries are only seen in children’s storybooks being skillfully navigated by witches through the sky.

The waste industry in India is unregulated and unorganized and it shows. If our own Municipal Offices and Police stations are heavily littered it seems that there is little hope for the general public when it comes to taking pride in our surroundings. Civic sense is negligible and the majority of people have no idea what happens to their waste once it’s been collected. Even wealthy household owners would rather save themselves a few rupees and allow their maids to throw their garbage into the street or into the open plot next door.

Waste Workers are real people, people with families and dreams, just like you or me. Every day they get up, go to work and clean areas that we made dirty through our own laziness, in the heat, in the rain and even the snow. If you want to make a difference, don’t litter or dump your waste – it’s such a simple thing to do when you put your mind to it.  Compost your organic waste, pass your recyclable waste onto a ragpicker so they don’t have to scavenge on the ground and in waste containers and share a smile or a thank you when you see them at work.

Swachh Bharat is not just a job for the Government or our unsung heroes, the Waste Workers – collective efforts are required and that means each and every citizen being responsible for the waste that we generate.

If you really want to make a difference, stop littering and start recycling! Spread the word amongst the residents in your colony or apartment block and allocate a day where all recyclable waste is passed on to a ragpicker. They will earn more money and maybe then their kids can go to school instead of foraging for waste with their parents.

For the people working in the waste industry every day is Environment Day, and it can be for you too if you make a few simple changes in your life.


Author: Jodie Underhill

Waste Warriors is an NGO working in the field of waste management that has projects in Corbett, Dehradun and Dharamsala. As a social organisation with funding limitations they can’t offer high salaries but they do pay Provident Fund and ESI (medical insurance) and their workers are truly appreciated. They are provided with protective masks, Waste Warriors branded shirts, caps and hooded tops and waterproofs for the monsoons. They receive bonuses for good attendance and performance and are involved in regular meetings so they can understand the importance of the work that they do and understand that they play a major part in the organization’s mission of a clean India.