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Hidden environmentalists: India's waste pickers

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Adnan Abidi/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Pigeons fly overhead as a woman collects recyclables from a dump in New Delhi, India. In Pune, India, an alliance of waste pickers has established an inclusive, sustainable model for dealing with India's rubbish problem.

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Indian Railways, often upheld as the greatest "gift" of the British Raj, spans the length and breadth of India, connecting a diverse people from Kanyankumari to Kashmir. Despite 65 years of nation-building, there are few common features that unite India’s billion-strong population. Yet, as my train labored along the paradisaical Malabar Coast, I lowered my gaze from the horizon and found one: rubbish. Newspapers, plastic bottles, food packaging, jettisoned from carriage windows – the railway network scars the countryside with 70,000 miles of litter.

It typifies the prevalent "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards waste – both at an individual and civic level – which has propelled several of India’s metropolitans into health and environmental crises. Last November, Bangalore was “drowning in its own waste” when pickups ceased for three weeks. Mounds of rubbish polluted "the Garden City," attracting rats, stray dogs, and pigs to some of its more illustrious neighborhoods.

The crisis, caused by villagers blocking the road to the Mandur landfill, drew attention to Bangalore’s existing waste management policy. Over the last two decades, as the city experienced stunning growth, the resultant increase in waste has simply been loaded onto trucks and dumped on the outskirts. Out of sight; out of mind. Since 2000, this practice has been mechanized by the municipal authority itself.

With the nation generating 750,000 tons of waste every week – the equivalent of two Empire State Buildings – the environmental and health implications of landfills are colossal. In Mandur, the latest dumping site had poisoned local waters and spread sickness and disease throughout local villages, until the protest forced its closure.

Rajneesh Goel, Bangalore’s chief civil servant, admits that they “never followed scientific landfill practices.” Indeed, practitioners estimate that 80 percent of waste in India is "managed" not by civic authorities, but by an informal economy of rag-pickers – people that salvage recyclable items to sell to scrap dealers. But with the city’s latest landfill closing permanently and India’s capacity to contain its waste reaching breaking point, the country needs to rethink its strategy.

In Pune, a city that suffered its own waste disposal crisis in 2010, an alliance of waste pickers has established an inclusive, sustainable model for solid waste management that presents a potential blueprint for the future. When the government of India introduced new Municipal Solid Waste Rules in 2000, requiring household segregation and door-to-door collection of waste, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) seized the opportunity to improve the condition of waste pickers in India by integrating them into formal waste management services.

They formed SWaCH – India’s first wholly-owned cooperative of self-employed waste pickers. Since 2005, SWaCH has worked in partnership with city authorities, providing door-to-door collection for a small fee and – unlike other contractors that favor landfills and incineration units – recycling and composting the city’s rubbish.

However, as Vishnu, head of operations, explains, it is an initiative driven primarily by social, rather than environmental forces. Before SWaCH, waste pickers rummaged through landfills to find scraps to sell.“They were not working in a clean area – there are snakes and pigs and dogs. And they were not getting enough sellables to sustain their families.” By incorporating waste pickers into the municipal mechanism for waste collection and formalizing what had previously been a completely unregulated economy, SWaCH has provided increased economic security and social uplift for thousands of families in Pune.

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Vaishali, a member of SWaCH, told me about her life before. “We used to go to the big dirt [landfills and dumping grounds]. So long we had to walk and walk, and we didn’t know if we would get anything. We used to carry our load on our head.” Today, with her own push-cart, the work is less strenuous; and with a set route, she has a regular income that allows her to provide not only food but education for her children.

Her children are now training as a plumber and teacher, reflecting the social uplift that is not uncommon among cooperative members.

But “if this SWaCH wasn’t here,” she believes, “all our children would be in the same occupation.” As well as improving working conditions, this initiative has the potential to break the generational cycle of waste pickers and poverty.

Although its primary goal was to improve the livelihoods of those engaged in a “crude and undignified” occupation, SWaCH has also had a transformative effect on the city – something of which cooperative members are very much aware.

“We feel proud,” says Vaishali. “Because of us the city is clean, and people are not frequently ill.” Another worker, Shobha, astutely observed: “Yes, we get our money; but the corporation, too, is getting the benefit of our work.”

Every week SWaCH members recycle 4,000 kilos (8,800 pounds) of "waste" that would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfills. However, Vishnu believes they are “invisible environmentalists,” because their contribution is not recognized by the authorities. Despite its impact on livelihoods, the clear environmental effects – especially for those in the vicinity of peripheral landfill sites – and the carbon-credit benefits obtained by statutory and corporate bodies, SWaCH continues to encounter political resistance.

“They [the municipal authorities] want to promote incinerators and big contractors,” Vishnu laments. SWaCH currently serves 40 percent of Pune’s 1 million households; but the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation recently awarded a contract for door-to-door collection and transportation to landfill to another party, and Vishnu fears that Pune Municipal Corporation may do the same.

This move would dismantle much of what SWaCH and KKPKP have been fighting for since their formation: private landfills not only have environmental repercussions, but also marginalize waste pickers whose source of earning – sellable scraps – are now off-limits.

“Why are they doing this?” Vishnu asks. “Because they are giving big money. They have no social concern.”

In India waste is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with huge opportunity for innovation and – as some practitioners have shown – profit. Vishnu hopes that SWaCH’s all-inclusive solution to the problems of waste and waste pickers “will be an example for India.” Vaishali reiterates the belief that “if all garbage workers work like this, it will be very good for the environment and for rag pickers. What we are doing, the same should be done all over India.”

But it is not so simple. “We need all-level involvement,” says Vishnu. “Government, citizens, institutional level.” It requires individual and community buy-in to end dumping and promote household segregation. But more importantly, it demands accountability on the part of state authorities that seem increasingly happy to ignore the waste that rises up around them. While he disapproves of “political interventions” that restrict the growth of SWaCH, Vishnu acknowledges ruefully, “without Municipal Corporation support, we can’t do this.”

The increasingly common incidence of waste piling up in Tier-I cities is evidence that India is at a crossroads. It is time for local governments to stop chasing lucrative contracts and act in the best interests of its citizens, the environment, and those that process India’s waste – the hidden environmentalists.

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.


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