Saturday, February 15, 2014
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Pune's waste pickers reinvented garbage collection to arrive at a win-win solution for both the residents and themselves
Members of SWaCH collecting waste during a festival. Source: SWaCH

Surekha Gaikwad is a high school graduate. She started picking waste along with her mother-in-law after getting married. Till five years back, she would not even bother to dress up as the day would be spent at a hot and filthy garbage bin. “Even if I had a bath in the morning, by midday I was stinking. So I never bothered to stay clean,” she says.

But now Surekha wears a nice fresh sari to work, with a rose in her hair. She leads a team of eight waste pickers who help residents and institutes of Pune segregate waste and use it for composting. “What is most important is the respect of other people. Today, when I go to the department to collect my money, the lady there asks me to sit on a sofa. If she is drinking tea, she will ask for another cup for me,” Surekha says. This transformation came about with the formation of SWaCH, India’s first cooperative wholly owned by self-employed waste pickers.

This change came about with the formation of SWaCH, India’s first cooperative wholly owned by self-employed waste pickers.

City in dumps

Like many other cities in India, Pune also had an informal solid waste management system which involved dumping of waste in the landfills at nearby villages notwithstanding the problems it caused to the villagers. Despite 1,400 metric tonnes generated every day, it never seemed a problem to the city residents. As long as the garbage was not visible, no one was bothered about where it was going. This situation was most difficult for the waste pickers who had to sort out recyclable items from the landfills as well as from the waste containers of different areas.

It was a health hazard since they sifted with bare hands through garbage which included, among other things, glass shards and medical waste. Rodents and other disease-carrying organisms scurried around. Presence of middle men in the recyclable waste industry also rendered the waste pickers very low wages.

According to a 2001 study, 75 per cent of the waste pickers walked for more than five hours daily, half of them worked for 9-12 hours, 30 per cent had been bitten by dogs and almost all were vulnerable to skin, gastro-intestinal and musculo-skeletal ailments.

According to a 2001 study, 75 per cent of the waste pickers walked for more than five hours daily, half of them worked for 9-12 hours, 30 per cent had been bitten by dogs and almost all were vulnerable to skin, gastro-intestinal and musculo-skeletal ailments.

Bottoms up

Pune has 38 IT parks, 38 cooperative industrial estates, and 3,000 cooperative industrial units in operation besides 70,700 enterprises. With such a large manufacturing and service industry, the city has a robust recyclable materials market. Waste pickers and moving waste buyers form the base of this market's pyramid and make up 76 per cent of its total workers. They are not always among the economically poorest, but they are usually among the most socially excluded and discriminated against populations in urban areas.

It was this group which started organising itself in 1990s and formed Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a formal union with foremost demands of right over the recyclable waste and recognition by Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). After a series of protests, the PMC issued photo identity cards and after 10 long years it also started paying the health insurance premium of the workers in recognition of their financial and environmental contribution to the city.

A research study found that each waste picker in Pune contributed US $5 worth of free labour to the municipality every month, and their combined labour saved the municipality US$316,455 in waste transport costs. it was estimated that nearly 118,000 tonnes of material was recovered by the informal sector annually.

A research study found that each waste picker in Pune contributed US $5 worth of free labour to the municipality every month, and their combined labour saved the municipality US$316,455 in waste transport costs. it was estimated that nearly 118,000 tonnes of material was recovered by the informal sector annually.

Safe, segregated waste

With increased awareness among residents about their legal rights and outbreak of diseases, closure of landfill sites were sought. KKPKP offered an indigenous solution in the form of door-to-door waste collection. This model not only bypasses dangerous dumps, but also makes it easier to divert organic waste into decentralised composting and recyclables back into the market.

With its own vehicles and labour, the Pune Municipal Corporation could only serve 7 per cent of households. Around 86 per cent of the municipal solid waste was still being collected from community bins placed in public areas. Since the fleet utilisation was poor, just 42 per cent of the municipal community bins were emptied daily. The civic body agreed to support a user-fee based system involving registered waste pickers to serve the city in 2006. Over a year later, the group registered itself as Seva Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit, informally known as SWaCH.

The service includes daily door-to-door waste collection from households, offices, shops and establishments, handing over of non-recyclable and organic wastes to the municipal transport, and retrieval of recyclable materials. SWaCH also runs helplines for its members as well as customers and regularly holds meetings with the neighbourhood civic communities. Since 90 per cent of its over 2,000 members are women, the social benefits are manifold. They earn more income in safer environments as compared to waste pickers in other cities. Sale of recyclable materials and service fee paid by customers funds their income, whereas previously they relied only on sale of recyclables. The women also work only 4-6 hours as compared to earlier days when they toiled for 9-10 hours in severe weather conditions. Most also enjoy a weekly holiday.

In addition, PMC supported the group which allowed it to pay professional salaries and support positions which added value to the work, like data collection and helpline management. The PMC also provided collection equipment, safety gear, office infrastructure and resource recovery centres. The monthly cost of all this for PMC came to be Rs 4.38 per household. However, the MoU ended recently and now SWaCH is running independently without any issues.

The organisation has been evolving with time and has included services like housekeeping, collection of unwanted household goods, e-waste and garden waste. Some of the SWaCH members are also trained in using the mechanical and manual compost pits and the bio-methanation plants. The group also recently launched a project which mainly deals with disposal of soiled and used sanitary products like diapers which are non bio-degradable. “Paper bags made out of old newspapers are sold at Re. 1 to the citizens for disposal of these waste products. This also helps the waste pickers in segregation and collection of waste products in a hygienic way,” informs one of the members Aparna Susarla.

The organisation has been evolving with time and has included services like housekeeping, collection of unwanted household goods, e-waste and garden waste. Some of the SWaCH members are also trained in using the mechanical and manual compost pits and the bio-methanation plants.

A few gaps

The waste pickers still face certain problems which are yet to be sorted out. For instance, many people do not segregate the garbage in their homes into wet and dry. “They believe that it is the duty of the waste pickers to segregate. This is a very difficult task for the waste pickers since it’s very unhygienic and also has health hazards. The people do not understand that the service offered involves only collection of the garbage and not segregation,” says Susarla.

Also, some citizens feel the service should be free. “There are cases when the citizens might pay more to the waste pickers as they are happy with the service. But there are also cases where the people are not ready to pay. Some lack the awareness that this is a service that is being provided to them by an organisation, not the municipal corporation,” Susarla adds.

There are cases when the citizens might pay more to the waste pickers as they are happy with the service. But there are also cases where the people are not ready to pay. Some lack the awareness that this is a service that is being provided to them by an organisation, not the municipal corporation

Effectively, the user fee recovered by SWaCH members is the minimum amount that the municipality would have had to raise through taxes to pay for this additional service. The logic is quite simple: there is more direct accountability to the service user in this system. What also makes SWaCH workers like Surekha Gaikwad different than other waste pickers is that they interact with the rich and the powerful as also with ordinary residents without any stigma.

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