Jodie Underhill, Founder of The Mountain Cleaners
Jodie Underhill, Founder of The Mountain Cleaners

The Mountain Cleaners: Cleaning up India’s most visited pilgrimage trails

The Mountain Cleaners
The Mountain Cleaners

How many times have we complained about the garbage on our roads and all around us? The ones among us who have had the opportunity to go to popular hill stations, tourist destinations and pilgrimage spots will bear testimony to the absolute recklessness with which garbage is strewn all around these areas, making them breeding grounds for disease-spreading germs and insects. But how many of us have actually done something about it? How many of us have picked up the trash and put it where it belongs? Meet one lady who has.

UK-born Jodie Underhill, along with her group of volunteers, has been cleaning up some of the most visited pilgrimage trails of India in the Himalayan belt. Not only do they hike up the pilgrims’ trail picking up trash along the way, they also segregate, recycle and manage the waste responsibly. In addition to this, they conduct programs to educate people (especially children) about the environment, try to find solutions for waste-related problems like access to clean water, health and sanitation problems and the way careless waste disposal affects animal and wildlife.

Here are some of the answers we sought from the “Garbage Girl” herself:

What brought you to India?

Jodie Underhill, Founder of The Mountain Cleaners
Jodie Underhill, Founder of The Mountain Cleaners

I wanted to come to India for as long as I can remember. I came to travel and to volunteer for the Tibetan Childrens Village  as I sponsor two Tibetan children. I originally stayed in McleodGanj but when I came to Bhagsu for a day, I fell in love with the place and decided to move here. And believe me, first impressions have been the same all over India, a beautiful place but too much garbage everywhere. The garbage discarded everywhere troubled me every single day so I decided to do something about it.

A collection team following pilgrims and cleaning up the trash is a wonderfully unique idea. What made you come up with the idea of Mountain Cleaners?
I started to organize mass clean ups in March 2009 but soon realized that just cleaning up wasn’t going to solve the problem. We had to find a long term solution. I became known as Garbage Girl and everywhere I went people told me about a place that needed cleaning. One place that was repeatedly mentioned was Triund, a four hour hike from Mcleod Ganj so I decided to take gloves, bags and volunteers up there to see what we could do. This was the start of the Mountain Cleaners.

What are the aims of The Mountain Cleaners?

  • Provide and promote sustainable waste management systems in India
  • Provide environmental education and recycling programs in schools and communities
  • Improve and maintain public spaces
  • Educate and raise environmental awareness whilst promoting and encouraging civic pride
  • Promote, sell and use environmentally friendly and recycled products
  • Provide voluntary, employment and training opportunities

Long term Aims:

  • To secure funding for a recycling factory in Himachal (other factories to follow)
  • To run national campaigns throughout India
  • To set up waste management systems across Indi

What happens to all the garbage that you collect on your trails?
Waste is collected and segregated into two simple categories – recyclable and, non recyclable waste. It is then separated into 10 different categories – plastic bottles, glass, glass bottles, metal, plastic bags, hard plastic, Tetra Pak, paper, cardboard, textiles/shoes. Until 2 days ago we had no storage so the recyclables were passed on to our waste workers and local rag pickers so they could get some extra income. Non recyclable waste goes in the town’s waste container which is emptied at the dumpsite in Dharamsala. In places like Triund plastic bottles make up the largest amount of waste so around 80% is recycled. If all waste was segregated at source we would be able to recycle this much everywhere, food waste reduces recycling potential as well as attracting flies and animals and making the job smelly and dirty. We need to be aware of the waste we generate and start thinking about where it goes!

What are the areas and trails that you cover on your collection drives?
As of now, we cover Triund (a 4-hour hike from McLeodGunj), Guna Devi temple, Kareri Village plus Lake and the Manimahesh Yatra.

Are there other projects you conduct besides garbage collection?

Dustbins installed at Bhagsu
Dustbins installed at Bhagsu

Yes, we organize special activities, mass clean-ups and events in the community and schools to celebrate occassions such as 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”.

We also know that the key to change lies with education. Players from Kings XI Punjab recently attended a painting competition conducted by us. We are enlisting the support of Bollywood stars and cricket players to convey the message that our communities should be clean like our homes.

How do you manage to sustain your initiative? Any challenges that you have faced in accomplishing your goals?
Our projects are funded solely by donations so we can achieve as much as our funds allow. The focus is on affordable solutions for everyone so we try and keep the costs to a minimum. We have been promised full funding for the Manimahesh Yatra 2011 by Holi Bajoli Hydroelectric Project. Last year’s Yatra was funded by the Yatra Committee which is managed by government officials so it’s good to see the government taking responsibility and supporting initiatives such as these.

We did face problems initially. There were a few problems involving registration but now we are about to register as a section 25 company (not for profit). This means that any profits we make we have to spend furthering the aims of our organization, new clean up projects/education, dustbins etc.

The Manimahesh Yatra is underway. And they need your help! Go and volunteer with Jodie’s team – contact her at

Ek Titli has joined hands with TheBetterIndia to collectively spread the positive ‘green’ stories. This article was originally published on TheBetterIndia portal.

Author: Anuradha Parekh

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