• Yasmin Prabhudas

Waste Warriors Tackle India’s Growing Mountain of Trash

*AUTHOR BIO

In the foothills of the Himalayas, something extraordinary is happening. Local communities are stepping up their efforts to deal with the devastating effects of ever-increasing amounts of garbage created by tourism and changing consumer habits.

Terraced hillsides are ready for planting at the Himalayan foothills. ©iStock/clintonweaverphoto.art/
Terraced hillsides at the Himalayan foothills. ©iStock/clintonweaverphoto.art/

One organization playing a key role in helping to deliver that change is Waste Warriors. Headquartered in the city of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, Waste Warriors is about 160 miles north of New Delhi, India’s capital. It operates locally in Dehradun and has bases in Rishikesh and close to the Corbett Tiger Reserve, as well as in Dharamshala in the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. All these locations share the magnificent backdrop of the Himalayas mountain range, one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions.


From Mountain Cleaning to Urban Waste Collecting


The nonprofit’s founder Jodie Underhill recognized tourism’s undesirable effect on the region in 2008 when she was traveling around India as a tourist. Her concerns about trash blighting India’s mountain areas increased, and a year later she established the first incarnation of Waste Warriors—Mountain Cleaners—which set out to clean up the remote mountain camp of Triund, in Himachal Pradesh. The project grew to include the area around the Gaddi temple Guna Mata in the Dhauladar mountains and Bhagsunag Waterfall. In 2011, Tashi Pareek joined Underhill as co-founder, allowing the project to expand further afield, and in 2012, Waste Warriors was formed in Dehradun. This would be the duo’s first urban project with one very simple goal—“to fight the war against filth.”


Chirag Mahajan, Waste Warriors’ senior manager of strategic partnerships and communications, explains why the nonprofit’s work is so crucial: "As tourist-heavy states, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have seen about 400 million tourists over the last ten years. The World Bank and NITI Aayog have respectively reported the annual waste generation of the entire region to be between five million and eight million metric tons per year. Given the lack of solid waste management procedures and implementation here, most of that is being dumped and burned. Almost upwards of 60% of that is being dumped openly, and these are not scientific landfills. These are very informal dumping sites."


India’s waste problems go beyond tourism: the nation’s consumption behaviors have changed too. “We’re transitioning as an economy over the last thirty to forty years, but that transition at a consumer level is also resulting in a lot of plastic consumption,” Mahajan says. This means consumer waste has changed from mostly materials that could be recycled, such as glass and metal, to materials that are not easily recycled—mixed plastics and foam packaging, for instance—and have little value in the recycling market.


Another key challenge is the lack of government “convergence and enforcement,” Mahajan says. The numerous departments, strategies, and missions do not work together when it comes to implementation; departments often operate in isolation, making waste collection ineffective. “The chain is broken on multiple fronts—from segregation* at source and collection of segregated waste to recovery of segregated material and access to recycling markets,” says Mahajan.


Meeting the Garbage Challenge


Waste Warriors addresses these challenges head on through its team of community mobilizers who raise awareness among local communities about the importance of separating their waste, undertaking organic composting, and using trash cans. The organization also works with municipalities to build waste collection systems. “You cannot tell people to change their behavior and do source segregation without providing them with the service that will allow them to get that waste out of their house,” Mahajan emphasizes.


Material recovery facilities and storage and sorting centers are also set up so that the garbage can be further sorted and processed, after which it is sent to certified waste recyclers or sold to scrap dealers.

Plastic bales at a material recovery facility in Dehradun. ©Waste Warriors
Plastic bales at a material recovery facility in Dehradun. ©Waste Warriors

In India, people known as waste pickers play a key part in the process, and Waste Warriors goes to great lengths to ensure they and their work are recognized. “India is transitioning very slowly out of the caste system,”** Mahajan explains. “The stigma around waste management results in a lot of people from low castes being informal waste pickers and rag pickers who don’t get the recognition they deserve to be formalized and integrated into a municipal system. Waste Warriors tries to link up workers with different government schemes, which enable them to obtain ID cards, health insurance, and bank accounts.”


These workers often face discrimination, but Waste Warriors’ intervention can help. Shomita Bhattacharya, senior project manager at Waste Warriors’ Rishikesh operation, explains, “When our community mobilizers interact with local communities, they go to households with the waste workers and the waste vehicles, there is a certain level of capacity building and training that’s happening for the waste workers, which over time helps them build their confidence to deliver the message. When they see it’s not just economically disadvantaged groups doing this work, it gives them that sense of pride. And then, as we reduce our level of intervention, we see them being able to carry on these conversations on their own. It’s a huge breakthrough—being able to communicate and speak out loud to households that have been treating them poorly initially.”

[Watch the video: A Day in the Life of Manda, a waste worker in Dharamshala.]


Persistence Leads to Funding for Women Waste Collectors


Since 2013, the organization has been working on the eastern periphery of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, where a large number of hotels, tour operators, and jeep safari groups are based. The area has seen an increase from 20 to 500 hotels over the past decade, which has led to a substantial rise in the amount of trash.

Clean-up drive at Corbett. ©Waste Warriors
Clean-up drive at Corbett. ©Waste Warriors

But convincing the forestry department to provide for waste management outside the national park has been an uphill struggle. It was not until 2021 that Waste Warriors’ persistence and positivity paid off: representatives were able to persuade those at the department to fund the waste collection efforts of a group of women in the area. The women, who received training from Waste Warriors on the basics of waste collection and waste management, are bringing on board more and more households to help manage the garbage.


Model Ward Programs Reap Rewards


The most remarkable results have been achieved through Waste Warriors’ model ward program. In Dehradun, for example, work with the local councilor helped transform an area of the city. The segregation of waste increased from 20% to over 90% in just one year. Citizens themselves then took over the waste management process from Waste Warriors, and the ward is now one of the cleanest in the city.


Additionally, door-to-door interactions with residents have often been highly successful. “We’ve always found, especially when it comes to behavioral change, the nudge factor is really important—reminding individuals, talking about the issues with different people and trying to convince them that the act of dumping and burning waste around them is not a healthy way of living for them or for their children,” Mahajan says.


Bringing the Waste Management Message to Homes


Megha Goyal and Prajjwal Sharma are two of Waste Warriors’ community mobilizers. Goyal, a masters graduate from the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, joined the organization as a volunteer for two months in January 2020 and is now an employee. She works across five wards in the city of Dharamshala.


She explains, “We go door-to-door and talk to residents about the benefits of waste management, their problems, and what we can do together. Then we conduct small meetings and awareness training workshops. We also have a Young Warriors Club for school children.” The focus is on citizens’ responsibilities as well as on health and hygiene. But that is not all—Goyal’s team is also involved in transforming spaces with murals to discourage littering.

Prajjwal Sharma engages with local residents regarding waste management. ©Waste Warriors
Prajjwal Sharma engages with local residents regarding waste management. ©Waste Warriors

Meanwhile, Sharma, a private tutor and an undergraduate, has been based in Rishikesh for five months. His role involves conducting a survey to find out how residents are disposing of their trash and running an awareness program to promote waste segregation. Active citizens are designated “waste champions” and are employed to further spread the message in the community.


He monitors household garbage left for waste collection vehicles and organizes events, such as workshops, community engagement activities, and conversations with residents over a cup of tea.


How have communities responded to their work? Goyal says, “Behavior change is a time-consuming process. From the very first day when we started this program there was zero waste segregation, but right now we have 60% to 70% of household waste being segregated.”


Sharma thinks it can be hard to mobilize everyone because “some people are self-centered.”


But he encourages people to think about the greater good: “I talk to them on an individual level, telling them if they do not segregate their waste, it will directly or indirectly impact the Ganga River. If they do not segregate their waste, plastic could be eaten by cows or other animals.” This approach has paid off: Sharma notes that in one ward the waste segregation rate has gone from zero to 80%.


“I feel great about what I’m doing for society and waste management,” Sharma says. “The best thing is that I’m changing someone’s habit that he or she was practicing for twenty to thirty years, and I feel great about this.”


* Waste segregation is the process of separating waste into categories.

** The caste system is a social hierarchy into which people are born. Although discrimination based on caste has been outlawed in India, those born into lower castes continue to face prejudice.

 

*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.