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.
are the main environmental issues in your region?
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.
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.
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.
is an urgent need of policies that
the economic interests of local people through tree planting that can reverse
the trend of land degradation
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.
are, according to your experience, the key element that lead to community
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
  • 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. We
are a team of empowered and skilled individuals that
can affect positive change to the lives of their respective communities.
are the contents of your education program?
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
job creators rather than job seekers
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;
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.