U Turn Foundation – bringing people together for a common cause

By Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi ProMosaik. In the following our interview with Hemant Nav Kumar, the founder of the Indian organization UTF (U Turn Foundation)working for the empowerment of communities and the protection of environment in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the Indian Himalaya. Would like to thank Hemant for his so important information about his projects and the history of his organization. 
How was U Turn Founded?
The U Turn Foundation (UTF) is a collaborative effort that grew out of my freelance volunteer initiatives. While working in the corporate sector in New Delhi, I felt the growing need to contribute back to the health of my community. I had spent the best parts of my childhood in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, a place at the foothills of the Himalayas famous for its scenic beauty and rich heritage. Traveling back on vacations, I witnessed Dehradun’s decline as various departments failed to take coordinated actions to address the increasing environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. The situation bothered me immensely. I decided to quit my job as a Process Trainer at United Health Group in order to go back and make a difference.
My decision to return to my hometown was supported by my spouse, Jaya Kumar, who at the time was working at Jet Airways, a leading Indian airline. Together, we left our cushy corporate jobs and relocated back to Dehradun. Combining our skills with a vision for a more sustainable homeland, we founded UTurn Foundationin October 2008, a non-profit venture dedicated to harnessing and directing the energies of young people to address the educational, environmental, and social challenges inUttarakhand. We were fortunate that from the beginning the UTF team was made up of resolute individuals that came from a wide range of life experiences. U Turn thus became a collective journey, bringing people together for a common cause after their journeys out into the world. Today, the team comprises the best minds and hands, all working towards the betterment of Uttarakhand.
What are the main environmental issues in your region?
A complex interplay of climatic factors, geological processes, resource use patterns, and economic conditions has led to several resource degradation and environmental decline throughout the state of Uttarakhand. Rapid population growth has brought about extensive land-use changes in a region where subsistence agriculture remains the main source of livelihood. The resulting large-scale cultivation and deforestation have not only disrupted the ecological balance of the Uttarakhand watersheds by reducing groundwater recharge and increasing soil erosion, but has also affected the adjoining Indo-Genetic plains through recurrent flooding and lowered irrigation potential.
Shifting land use practices have other important implications for the sustainable livelihood of local communities, where traditional crop and livestock mixed farming is maintained with local inputs. While household incomes have improved in recent years through the cultivation of cash crops, that improvement has come chiefly at the expense of the surrounding forest biomass. In addition, one study showed that introduced crops such as tomatoes and bell peppers require five times the energy compared to traditional crops adapted to Himalayan agro-ecosystems. This indicates that more research is needed to support sustainable crop cultivation in the fragile Himalayan environment.
The Uttarakhand region has long been regarded as a biodiversity hotspot. Unfortunately, deforestation has left vast stretches barren, with floods and landslides becoming regular occurrences. Many of the area’s endemic and rare species now face the threat of extinction; several species have been lost and there is a rapid reduction in the population of many existing species. In recent years, human-animal conflicts have also intensified, resulting in economic losses from damages caused by wildlife to food crops and fruit trees.
There is an urgent need of policies that
(i)                safeguard the economic interests of local people through tree planting that can reverse the trend of land degradation
(ii)             enhance the cultural and ecological knowledge of tree species so that the local community can harness their numerous benefits.
Other major environmental issues that need to be addressed include forest fires, the introduction of non-biodegradable wastes, and the lack of water conservation. Another concern has been the growing influx of tourists, which put a strain on the already scarce resources of the sub-alpine areas.
What are, according to your experience, the key element that lead to community empowerment?
Through experience, UTF recognizes that knowledge shared through awareness and continued pursuance is the key to social change. During the implementation of UTF’s projects in the central Himalayan areas of rural Uttarakhand, we had a chance to work closely with many local communities. We listened to what the people thought about conservation policies and other forms of management interventions. We learned that damage to crops and livestock by wildlife and the loss of wild medicinal plant resources were the key negative impacts felt by many communities. We identified the need to develop policies and management actions thatboth serve local economic interests and enhance environmental conservation goals. In the end, we cannot overstate the importance of the Himalayan forests both as life support systems for the local people and as repositories for regional biodiversity.
It is evident that community empowerment and development is the key to a flourishing and sustainable rural Uttarakhand. UTF believes that true change comes in sustained efforts in rural community capacity building, made by local government,NGO’s, and the private sector, to make the local people real partners in natural resource management. Sufficient time and support must be allocated to allow communities to develop representatives for the various interests of local groups. 
Can you tell me what are the projects currently carried on?
Enriched by almost a decade of grassroots experience, UTF has consolidated its approach and strategy to work towards the 4 E’s: Environment, Education, Employment, and Empowerment. UTF is steadily working towards building the capacity to tackle environmental protection, sustainable livelihood development, water management and conservation, social welfare programs for the disadvantaged, ecological conservation, and aesthetic living through the practice of yoga. Here are several of the projects we are working on in each of the 4E’s:
Smart colleges:In the central Himalayan areas of rural Uttarakhand, UTF is partnering with funding agencies for the construction of schools destroyed during the calamities. UTF has already constructed an eco friendly earthquake resistant government school in Kedarnath valley and currently engaged in collaborating with MNCs for construction of 4 more schools which would further benefit students of more than 100 villages. UTF has been felicitated by Uttarakhand State Government for exceptional work post Uttarakhand floods.
IT awareness/Implementation (Tehri Belt): In the past, UTF has been providing computer scholarships and IT awareness camps in rural Uttarakhand. The scholarships havehelped hundreds of young students to learn basic knowledge of computers. 
VAPAS: Project VAPAS (Value Added Products for Agricultural Sustainability) is the sum up of UTF’s experiences to provide stable means of livelihood of citizens of rural Uttarakhand. Agricultural and herbal sectors have been the major source of livelihood for villagers for centuries but due to low income from agriculture and lack of growth of herbal production villagers were forced to leave for cities in search of higher income leaving their lands barren. We noticed that there were many agro commodities available which could generate as much 10 times the commodities price. All that was needed was to add value to the products. For eg. Finger millets cost Rs 20 per Kilogram but if you make cookies of finger millets it would generate Rs 160 Kg. Apart from getting more price, the villagers would also develop new skills. So UTF started motivating Self Help Groups to engage in Value Adding activities and they were happy with the new possibilities that they were exposed to. UTF has been trying since last 4 years to take these products to the Indian markets and slowly and steadily the product range has reached 100 which is a very promising sign for time to come. We have partnered with Uttarakhand Organic Board to promote organic products and encourage farmers to become part of Organic Uttarakhand movement. Apart from VAPAS, UTF is also focusing on employment through skills development, agro tourism, voluntourism and herbal products.
Preserve green Doon: UTF’s first environmental preservation efforts started from Dehradun to sensitize citizens on protection of landscape, water bodies and heritage. The movement started from massive cleanup drives by UTF’s youth volunteer group, Green Force, to encourage citizens to participate in environmental protection activities and reduction of non biodegradable waste.
U Turn Foundation has introduced several campaigns involving the local populace with grass root issues. Campaigns such as “Green Diwali”, “Beyond Valentine”, “Chemical free Holi” and “Christmas for Trees” bear testimony to the fact that the Foundation devised unique steps like Cycle rallies, Preserve Green Earth music concerts, cleanliness drives, pollution free festival celebrations, save Rispana river,etc. to connect Doonites with the “Preserve Green Doon” movement.
Adopt a plant: While devising campaigns for ‘Preserve Green Doon’, it became apparent that there was something amiss in the conventional tree plantation process which we were witnessing around us. Lots of tree plantation drives were being conducted on a regular basis but the survival rate of such saplings was quite low. UTF team decided that there has to be only one way to improve the survival rates of the plantation – “ADOPT A PLANT”. The efforts were instant success and we are proud to say that not only thousands of plants adopted by citizens but the survival rate is phenomenal due to the care and love shown by the citizens.
Polythene Free Uttarakhand: Since inception of U Turn Foundation we have had strong aversion to polythene usage because of it’s never ending non degradable life span and the irreversible damage it is inflicting on earth and on life that earth sustains. We have been cleaning roadsides of non-degradable waste, have set up dustbins, requested the municipal board for regular cleaning of bins, talking to people about the ill-effects of polythene. The Foundation drafted an act with the help of our esteemed advisers and consultants which was presented to the honorable “Chief Minister of Uttarakhand”. Signature campaigns were conducted all across the length and breadth of Dehradun, Rishikesh, Chakrata, Narendar nagar, etc.  The Green Force members conducted door to door awareness campaigns on the importance of this act. More than 20,000 signatures were recorded in support of this cause. Starting from the honorable speaker of Uttarakhand, member of parliaments, district magistrates, city magistrate, doctors, lawyers and people from all walks of life supported the movement. UTF still awaits Uttarakhand’s own Non biodegradable Garbage control act which will make polythene bags illegal in Uttarakhand. The campaign continues with citizens in support of this act.
Solid Waste Management: Appreciating the model of “Doon Valley Waste Management (DVWM)” we worked alongside the municipal board, health department and Doon valley waste management to improve its effectiveness by advising / suggesting measures based on our door to door campaigns for proper segregation of garbage. Our findings and reports were incorporated by DVWM. Apart from this UTF has started its own Green Ward project in which the ward community is being guided for tree plantation, solid waste management, reduction of polythene,etc. The model is ready and we are waiting for funds to start the project at city level. UTF has tied up with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi to find a long lasting solution to the solid waste management problem of Dehradun.
Revival of Himalayan water sources: UTF understands the role of original Himalayan water system for ecological balance of Uttarakhand. U Turn Foundation plans the Revival of dying springs and Rispana & Bindal rivers of Dehradun using geo-hydrological knowledge to plan recharge structures as solutions to the water crisis, especially in rural areas which hinges upon the storage of seasonal rainwater. An integrated approach that considers revival of hilltop lakes, streams and springs while developing their catchment is needed..
 The proposed project consists of:
  • The construction and rejuvenation of baavadis (small ponds).
  • The training of people in slow sand filtering and filter construction to purify drinking water.
  • A survey, documentation of, and pilot for the technology of Bawadis construction.
  • Undertaking an exchange program to share successful conservation experiences.
  • Supporting grassroots street theatre and workshops on water and sanitation issues.
Any Body Can Project: 26% of Dehradun’s population resides in slum areas today. Few opportunities exist for the underprivileged children of Dehradun slums that allow them to learn and grow to their full potential. Through the Any Body Can (ABC) project, UTF is teaching underprivileged children performing arts, painting & drawing, craft making, and music. By giving them the skills, confidence, and courage to be vocal and realize their plans, the ABC project provides them with an opportunity to take ownership of their future and transform not only their lives, but the lives of their families as well.
Filling colours in lives of Old age people: The work of any nonprofit organization is influenced by volunteers. The neglected sections of society always touched the hearts of our volunteers specially the plight of senior citizens in Old age homes. The volunteers of UTF celebrate every festival with inmates of Old Age Homes in Dehradun and trying to add care in the lives of abandoned old age people.
Yogprachar: UTF understands the importance of Yoga for health and wellbeing of its fellow citizens. UTF is regularly organizing yoga camps in association with expert Yoga teachers to spread the wave of Yoga in nook and corners. The camps have benefitted hundreds of citizens.
Members of U Turn Foundation continue to work with local communities, administration and various government departments to provide services wherever possible and necessary. We strive to live our motto of “many ideas, one vision” to develop innovative and progressive projects, programs, drives, and campaigns. Our vision: To empower our fellow Indian citizens with opportunities of education and livelihoods that promote the creation of a sustainable and environmentally responsible Uttarakhand. Weare a team of empowered and skilled individuals that can affect positive change to the lives of their respective communities.
What are the contents of your education program?
Through infrastructure building and computer scholarships UTF has benefitted students of more than 30 villages. UTF’s primary objective is to improve the existing rural school infrastructure with IT enabled studies. UTF is also motivating the rural community to appreciate the value of sending their children to school, especially for girls. The major focus of UTF’s program is:
Environmental awareness, hygiene and sanitation
Extracurricular programs like music, performing arts, debates, etc. that promote child development
Basic computer literacy programs with basic knowledge of MS Office and Internet.
UTF wishes to help in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit among students so that they will become job creators rather than job seekers
How civil society has been responsive to your initiatives so far?
U Turn Foundation has from the very beginning at the forefront of environmental preservation activities and inspired other civil society through grass root activism. For instance; before intervention of UTF polythene had been accepted as neccessary evil and UTF played an important role in changing the mindset of people towards need of polythene ban. This example motivated other civil societies towards contributing to the dream of Polythene free Uttarakhand. UTF’s clean up drives were also instrumental in charting a new path for civil societies and a new wave of grass root action started which still continues.  Today we feel proud to announce that the Uttarakhand State Government has banned polythene usage below 40 microns where U Turn Foundation has contributed unequivocally.
In year 2016, UTF played an instrumental role in one of the most impactful collaborative efforts of civil societies of Dehradun to save Dehradun Tea gardens. It is known as one of the most important citizens’ victories in Uttarakhand.  UTF has been part of Citizen Action Group a collective group of most renowned civil societies of Dehradun. We have been acknowledged as an organization at the forefront of environmental preservation and empowerment of citizens. UTF has also been critical in engaging youth members of civil society through the creation of the Green Force for youngsters. Currently we are in association with more than 50 civil societies and collaborate whenever there is need for joint action.
Do you cooperate with local authorities and institutions? If yes, how?
One of the reasons of success of U Turn’s programs is cooperation and coordination with government authorities and Institutions.  All our projects/programs are run in association with local authorities and institutions. During the relief phase during Uttarakhand calamity UTF worked with District Disaster Management Association and District Administration at Rudraprayag to provide immediate supply of relief materials to impacted areas. For schools construction UTF coordinates with Chief Education Officer, Uttarakhandwhile local institutions helps us with funds. UTF is also working with schools and colleges for environmental protection drives. To provide legal support to Old age home inmates UTF is working in partnership with Dehradun District Judiciary while polythene ban and waste management is being pursued in association with Dehradun Municipal Corporation. These are just a few examples of UTF’s current associations for impactful work in the Uttarakhand region. UTF is also working with Forest Research Institute, Dehradun Health Department, District Administration, Dehradun, Pitthoragarh Disaster Management Association just to name a few.