A week before Diwali last November, 1000-1200 waste pickers from Delhi gathered at India Gate to remind Delhiites that while they cleaned their homes on Diwali, there were over 80,000 people working to clear the waste they threw out. The waste pickers asked to be recognised for their role in recycling the waste of the city, and asked for light in their own lives, otherwise ridden with dirt, disease and social disdain. The highly innovative and unusual programme at India Gate consisted of poems, dramatic and colourful art installations, collages, and several rows of paintings; the high point was the waste pickers' stage show named Kabarmanch (a stage for waste).

Last May, Jan Sunwai - yet another innovative programme of rag-pickers - was held in Mumbai, and testimonies of 11 women were heard by a tribunal chaired by Justice (Retd) S D Pandit. A rag-picker Sushilabai Sable summed up what lakhs of others like her would like us to know: "A rag-picker woman is not respected by society. We work in filth, garbage bins and dumping ground from morning to evening. We have no water or other sanitary facilities on the dumping ground or in our community. We smell of dirt. Nobody from the society likes to touch us or give us respect and dignity. They call us dirty - even worse than garbage itself. They call us Chor, Chappal chor, etc. Are we thieves? Our boys do not go to school and are unemployed. Husbands beat us and quarrel with us. Children watch that and behave in the same manner. Girls go to school only up to the 7th standard. We get them married when they are 12 or 13, as we are worried about the surroundings and their future.

Young and adolescent boys in the community just wander aimlessly. Most of them lack proper education and employment opportunities. They often fall into bad company. The atmosphere in the community is getting worse with alcohol shops, video parlors and gambling dens mushrooming at every corner. Then, imagine the plight of a rag-picker when she returns home after a hard day's work. We all belong to the Dalit community. There are no Maratha or Brahmin women doing this dirty work. There are no proper facilities of electricity, water, common toilets, Balwadis, open spaces. We have to wait till it is dark to go to toilet. We suffer from innumerable skin diseases as well as other serious ailments. We cannot go to hospitals in the mornings, as we have to go to work. There is no OPD in the evening in the municipal hospitals. So we go to private doctors or even quacks. If we do not get proper treatment, we fall victim to black magic and blind faiths and superstitions."

Certainly, the list of woes is long, and Sushilabai Sable has experienced nearly all of it. She was barely 8 years old in 1972-73 when the Marathawada region in Maharashtra reeled under severe drought, and her parents were forced to migrate to Mumbai to make a living. They happened to find a dwelling in a shanty near the Deonar dumping ground. Since her illiterate parents had no means of livelihood, no skill to sell or no other menial work to do too, they started picking garbage at the dumping ground; this needed no capital or employment. Sushila too took to the same work, and toiled at it for 20 years.

Then she came into contact with Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS), and her life changed dramatically. She acquired training in leadership, composting and gardening and now she is a trainer herself and President of the Federation of Self-Help Groups of women rag-pickers. Many such Sushilas who came to cities have now been organised by the Stree Mukti Sanghatana, which has made a huge difference.

Some commendable efforts

Since 1999, SMS has worked for the upliftment of rag-picker women, and has organised 2000 women in around 190 groups. Recently a separate organisation - Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh - has been registered as a federation of these groups and four cooperative societies of 50 women each are also registered to undertake various contracts for composting, cleaning, house to house collection, etc. SMS also gives the women training in composting, gardening, and maintenance of bio-gas plants.

Says Jyoti Mhapsekar of SMS, "the government of Maharashtra has recommended to all the municipalities of Maharashtra, our model of successful partnership with the municipal corporation in Mumbai for applying Suvarna Jayanti Shahari Rojgar Yojana (SJSRY ) to the poorest of the poor - the rag-pickers." Under SJSRY, SMS organized groups of rag-pickers derived benefits such as

  • Work sheds for the cooperative stores for dry waste in seven wards in Mumbai; a few more will be constructed under infrastructure development.

  • After completion of one year, each self-help groups of rag-pickers received Rs. 10000/- as seed money.

  • SMS has been recognised as a training institute for imparting training to rag-picker women

  • The municipality has provided tempos and incorporated rag-pickers in at least 4 wards for house to house dry waste collection.

  • There is also a provision to give training to ragpickers' children who are above 18 years of age.

Today, more than 200 trained women are working in various societies for creation of almost zero waste situation in their respective societies ranging from 100 to 1200 flats each and also in 5 informal dry waste sheds provided by the municipal corporation in Mumbai.

"In many cities, there are groups which have been working with the waste pickers, like Chintan and Vatavaran in Delhi; Sukuki Exnora in Hyderabad; Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra in Ranchi; CDC in Jaipur etc. And there are many potential organisations who have taken initiatives but have not achieved the same success but are fully capable of" informs Sanjay Gupta of Toxics Link. Among all these, however, the pioneering work has been done by Pune's Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) which is demanding integration of wastepickers in Solid Waste Management plans.

KKPKP is organizing rag pickers/waste-pickers/scrap collectors for the past thirteen years, and is the registered trade union of waste pickers. Says Laxmi Narayan of KKPKP, "Our efforts have basically been in the direction of establishing waste-pickers as workers by quantifying their contribution to solid waste management and using this to seek State recognition for waste-pickers. Some of the breakthroughs that have been made in Pune relate to the official endorsement of identity cards by the Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporations and the institutionalisation of a medical insurance scheme, the premium for which is paid through the annual Pune Municipal Corporation budget. We run a credit society for them and a scrap cooperative, both of which are financially independent and viable programmes now."

Livelihood threatened

The Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Rules 2000 require municipalities to extend themselves to primary collection of garbage (door to door) instead of the earlier practice of secondary collection from the common collection points (containers) on the street. The rules themselves are explicit in offering a range of choices that the municipalities can adopt for this purpose. The Maharashtra government also requires that this work should be given to organisations of waste-pickers on a priority basis. This offers the space for the integration of organised waste-pickers into the system of doorstep collection so that they are guaranteed access to scrap, their conditions of work improve, and they are able to work with dignity.

In the contract system of garbage collection, there is no segregation of garbage at the collection point. This is another reason why the waste-pickers should be deployed on these trucks as the collection happens.
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However, for all the good intentions, the implementation remains far from sight in Maharashtra. On the contrary the MSW Rules are forcing municipalities to clean up the city with an emphasis on improved appearances rather than job protection, improved recycling, or diverting waste from landfills. Required compliance with the Rules is forcing them towards privatization of this work, and there is no attempt to integrate waste-pickers as labourers/service providers either by the contractors or the NGOs taking up the work of collection. They often find unemployed youth for this work; this is displacing the already extremely poor waste-pickers from the only livelihood they know.

Nashik, for example, has contracted out garbage collection through tractor trolleys using other hired labour, in the process rendering 1000 waste-pickers destitute. Almitra Patel, member of the Supreme Court Committee for Solid Waste Management, met Nashik Municipal Commissioner Vinita Singhal, who was aware of and sympathetic to the waste pickers' plight. Singhal had no objection to contractors employing waste pickers but was unwilling to rewrite the contracts to require waste-pickers on their trucks. She also felt it would be unsafe for young girls or women to be aboard these vehicles along with the youths early morning. But Jyoti and Laxmi feel the the correct response is not to leave the women out of the jobs; instead the administration/contractor should ensure that male workers have the right attitude to the women. Many trucks could also be manned - or womanned, in this case - entirely by women.

Moreover, in the contract system of garbage collection, there is no segregation of garbage at the collection point. It is done after the mixed garbage is processed leading to losses in resource recovery. This is another reason why the waste-pickers should be deployed on these trucks as the collection happens. This requires rag-pickers to register and organise themselves to push for their inclusion into any system of door-to-door collection that the municipality decides upon.

Each city's decision could mean the difference between hope and despair for many rag-pickers, but each is also an opportunity to try and find solutions to their common plight in many urban areas. A wide range of issues - the current state of waste-pickers, their numbers, garbage quantum, current practices, relationship with municipality, possibility of waste pickers' integration, potential key players in making changes, costs and possible interventions - have all drawn the attention of activists and others alert to the risk of displacing large numbers of people from their very meagre livelihoods. With the rag-pickers themselves organising for their protection, there is reason to hope that concerted action to ensure better rights and livelihood for waste-pickers could lead to some positive changes.