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World Environment Day: How These Safai Sathis Are Saving Himalayas From Becoming Garbage Mountains

The Safai Sathis are working with the non-government organisation ‘Waste Warriors’ and serving a vital role by helping to manage waste in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh

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World Environment Day: How These Safai Sathis Are Saving Himalayas From Becoming Garbage Mountains

New Delhi: “Tourists are turning our pahads into a mountain of garbage. But what bothers me is that we locals are also careless when it comes to disposing and segregating our waste from our houses,” said Hema Thapa, an environmental enthusiast from Sawalde Purv, a small village near Corbett National Park, in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand.

For Ms. Thapa, it all started when she noticed a problem with solid waste disposal growing on a large scale in her village. The villagers, including her family, disposed of the garbage and litter in any given empty space. She witnessed mountains of garbage overtaking the clean and green areas of the village. As upset as she was witnessing it, she was unable to figure out what she could do in order to mitigate the problem and save her village from becoming a hazardous waste dump.

As luck would have it, a non-government organisation, Waste Warriors, visited her gram panchayat with their model of ‘Paryavaran Sakhis’ (Friends of the Environment) to tackle tackling solid waste generated in from rural areas, known as, ‘Paryavaran Sakhis’.

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Waste Warriors is a non-government organisation based out of Uttrakhand that is catalysing systemic change to solve the solid waste management crisis in the Himalayan regions of India. They work on developing solutions and models that are systemic, inclusive, and sustainable. One such model created by them is ‘Paryavaran Sakhis’ (Friends of the Environment), in which rural women of diverse backgrounds come together to form Self-Help-Groups (SHGs) to offer door-to-door waste collection services in rural areas. The aim of the model is to solidify the waste management problem in rural areas while empowering women, by making them financially independent.


In December 2021, the Waste Warriors conducted a session in at the village detailing their model of ‘Paryavaran Sakhis’. It was attended by the head of the panchayat, the villagers, and the women who were part of SHGs in the area.

Ms Thapa is a part of a Self-Help Group ‘Mehak Swayam Shayata Samuh’ in her village for the last five years and has been working towards encouraging the women in the village over on various social issues. Speaking to the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India team, Ms Thapa said that this was a golden opportunity for her group to make a change in her village on a larger scale.

She and the other group members approached the Waste Warriors team to become a part of their initiative.

Following, Ms Thapa and other women joined the initiative in July last year, underwent multiple educational and training sessions where they learnt learned about waste management, the difference between dry and wet waste, the collection procedure they have to follow, the long-term benefits of the initiative to the environment, the official records to maintain with the Waste Warriors team, and much more.

Wearing gloves and masks, Paryavaran Sakhi Ms Thapa collects dry waste door-to-door on a weekly basis, educates the villagers about the difference between dry waste and wet waste, the importance of proper waste management, and much more. Additionally, she provides the families with disposable bags containing information about segregating dry and wet waste.

After collecting the waste, she puts it in the waste bank (a place with two to three rooms), where the dry waste is segregated in 20–22 ways: from cardboard, paper, multi-layered plastic (MLP), bottles, glass, rubber, etc. Following that, the materials are sold to either local aggregators or transported to Waste Warrior’s Dehradun facility.

Personally, Ms. Thapa has been encouraging the women to become ‘Paryavaran Sakhis’, explaining to them how it would not only help them to become financially independent, but the opportunity could also be used to sensitise people about the environment and need for all round cleanliness in the surroundings. Unlike her family, most of the villagers seemed to be ‘caste-forced to avoid becoming a part of such an initiative. She said,

In the beginning, there were 10–12 women who agreed to join the in their initiative, but several left due to a lack of support from their families. They refused the women of the house, saying that collecting garbage was the job of people associated with it for generations from ancestral times or who belonged to the marginalised section of the society. How discouraging is that? Eventually, it was only six of us who worked as Sakhis.

Despite having full support from her husband and in-laws, Ms. Thapa faced difficulties in convincing the villagers to see her with the same eye of respect as others, after she became a ‘Paryavaran Sakhi’.

I was ridiculed by many people in my village. Many said that I should not be doing ‘this type’ of job and questioned if my family was facing a financial crisis, while some clearly said that they would no longer drink water from my house, considering me an ‘untouchable’.

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It has been a year since Ms Thapa has been working as ‘Paryavaran Sakhi’ and she says that the mentality of the villagers, who once looked down upon her work, has gradually changed, as these Sakhis educated them door-to-door about waste management, conducted multiple rallies and clean-up drives.

She earns around Rs 2000–3000, which is inclusive of the user charges each villager pays (Rs 30/- each) for door-to-door collection and the amount Waste Warrior provides them through gap funding (the amount of money used to fund the ongoing operations or future development of a project that is not currently funded with cash, equity, or debt).

Ms. Thapa said though the amount is comparatively less, many villagers still have not signed up for the waste collection. But she is hopeful that things will change for the better once more people are aware and inclusive get involved in of taking care of the environment.

Sudhir Kumar Mishra, Assistant Manager, Outreach and Advocacy, Waste Warriors, told us that Paryavaran Sakhis, along with the help of the NGO members, also identify places that are turning into small landfills, clean them up, create benches made out of eco brick (plastic bottles densely packed), and place boards with the message of keeping the spot clean.

For Ms Thapa, becoming financially independent and self-reliant while saving the environment was more essential than anything else. Her earnestness to work towards a goal that benefits the environment eventually gained her respect from the community. She added,

I am now a financially empowered woman and respected by all for my leadership and dedication towards a cleaner and healthier environment.

Ms. Hema she believes said that the work she is doing is the responsibility of every citizen.

I am doing my bit to save our region from becoming a landfill. But only work will not solve the problem; all of us at our end need to ensure that we are disposing of the waste properly.

Apart from Ms Thapa’s village, Sawalde Purv, Waste Warrior’s Paryavaran Sakhis are now have a presence at 11 panchayats of Nainital, including the villages of Kaniya, Ringoda, Dhikoli, Gargia, Kyaari, Himatpur, and Sawalde Pashchim, among others. The NGO has transformed many lives through its multiple initiatives, enrolling people from the economically backward section of society and giving them means of livelihood.

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The team spoke to another two waste warriors, Toofan and Savita, who work at the NGO’s Dharamshala Segregation Facility, Himachal Pradesh. Parents of two sons and a daughter, the couple has have been working with the NGO for more than two years as ‘Green Workers’. Their story from dearth to development is truly inspiring—from begging on the streets, living in huts and shacks to becoming green workers and having a ‘pucca’ roof on their heads, the couple’s story from dearth to development is truly inspiring.

Parents of two sons and a daughter, Toofan and Savita’s families migrated from Maharashtra to Dharamshala decades ago. The family had no proper means of livelihood and ended up working as junk or scrap dealers and garbage collectors. The couple was soon employed by the Dharamshala Municipal Corporation (DMC), where they worked for nearly five years.

One unfortunate night, the couple’s temporary shack was flooded with water. To build another one, Ms Toofan took leave of three days from DMC, but it took him a few more days to build a proper hut for his family. This cost him his job, as the official at the DMC refused to keep him at work anymore. At this time, he learnt about Waste Warriors from his aunt, who was already working at the facility.

The supervisor and the NGO members trained me and my wife about segregation of the waste, and it has been more than two years we are working with them.

Both Mr. Toofan and Ms. Savita are diligent and hardworking members, said Abhishek Bhangalia, NGO Supervisor at Dharamshala facility. Mr. Bhangalia informed,

They never had a pucca roof above them and lived in a place with a temporary shelter made out of tin sheets and plastic tarpaulin, for all their lives. They were always worried about the children falling ill due to the unhealthy condition in which they were living. But we have monetary support for buying housing under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

With other green workers, the couple segregates 700–800 kgs of waste collected per day from the rural area and works on the baler machine in which the waste is compressed. The couple earns Rs 15,000 each, and the NGO has also helped them receive coverage under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) and Provident Fund (PF).

There was a fear of putting food on plates for the next day for my family; we had gone through days without light or water supply, and there was no security we had. Waste Warriors came as a boon for my family. Today, I have more than what I had dreamed of: a pucca roof, adequate water and electricity supply, and financial security. The supervisors and NGO members here are supportive and very friendly. I always wished my children would not face the hardships I have seen. Now, they go to school and are excelling in their subjects.

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NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ populationindigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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