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How to Integrate Waste Pickers Into a City’s Solid Waste Management System

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In the fifth edition of a six-part blog series supported by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Pinky Chandran, founding member of SWMRT, trustee of Hasiru Dala and co-author of “Leave No Trace”, writes about her involvement in helping to solve Bangalore’s waste problem, by bringing together enthusiastic activists, with previously unrecognised waste pickers.

"It also meant that these informal waste workers would become known for their entrepreneurial abilities, as they professionalised and diversified their operations within the waste stream—including composting, managing waste at events, communicating their issues—while coming together to create solutions."

Let’s Clean Bangalore Together screamed a mailer sent out by a group called Anonymous Indian in 2009, appealing to the patriotic fervour of citizens: “This Independence Day, let’s liberate ourselves from garbage.”

It went on to outline ambitious plans for a one-day clean-up of the city on 15 August. The brainchild of Myriam Shankar, a German citizen residing in Bangalore, who wanted to spare no effort. This included roping in Radio Active 90.4, a local community radio station that I was involved with, to ensure the participation of over 4,000 citizens.

However, this one-day drive made clear the current temperament of residents, who wanted visual cleanliness, but had no sustainable long-term solution that would actually “clean the city.”

Recognising the futility of a clean-up drive that did not address the root cause of Bangalore’s waste crisis, Myriam next reached out to individuals who were experimenting with segregating waste at source and home composting, along with organisations working on waste management services.

During their first informal meeting on 8 October 2009, they decided to form a group,
the Solid Waste Management Roundtable, a name that stuck and came to define
the group’s vision:
"SWM Roundtable is a platform to share and discuss experiences and methodologies around waste management. Our aim is to inspire and to consult individuals to introduce solid waste management practices. Our vision is to convert households, apartments and institutions into proper waste management, ideally ZERO WASTE.”

In order to make substantial changes, those of us involved in the Roundtable decided to meet every Tuesday to discuss, analyse, and strategise.

At one meeting in 2010, when discussing the need for neighbourhood recycling centres, Nalini Shekar joined us as a special guest. Initially warm and receptive, I could sense her growing discomfort as the meeting progressed. She soon started nodding her head and crossing her arms.

The meeting concluded and she stepped out to receive a call. I followed her and asked if something was amiss.

Exasperated, she said: “How can you people even talk of waste management without getting waste pickers and other informal waste collectors involved?”

Identity and Identity Cards

A sizeable community of independent workers in Bangalore make their living picking waste, while going about their daily tasks unrecognised, mostly invisible and largely ignored.

By retrieving recyclables, they have long played a vital role in the city’s waste collection, yet their contribution has been very much undervalued and unaccounted for by the authorities.

Nalini, along with Anslem Rosario, immediately began organising the waste pickers in Bangalore. Through the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW)—a network of organisations working with waste pickers across India— along with SWMRT, they submitted a request to the Lok Adalat (an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, also known as the people’s court) asking the local municipality to issue waste pickers identity cards and pursue their integration into the city’s solid waste management system.

In a big win, the Lok Adalat eventually directed the Bangalore municipality to register waste pickers and enumerate scrap dealers in the city.

Not a long after that, in 2010, Nalini founded Hasiru Dala – the “green force” – an NGO which came into existence with the noble aim to create better livelihoods for waste pickers, thereby enabling them to build viable businesses, which would have a positive social and environmental impact.

On 9 August 2010, the municipality issued 220 identity cards (IDs) thereby making history by being the first urban local body in India to issue official identity cards to waste pickers. Another 2,500 IDs were distributed on the 26 January 2012. To date, a little over 6,000 IDs have been issued.

Inclusion and Integration

Inclusion and integration are two highly contested words for waste pickers, who are interdependent, yet cannot exist in isolation.

For Hasiru Dala, the transition towards a new zero-waste model proposed by citizen groups meant an opportunity to integrate informal waste pickers and scrap shop dealers into the existing municipal solid waste management system—as opposed to creating a parallel system.

This meant a new holistic structure, in which informal waste recyclers were recognised and respected for their skill in sorting, grading, aggregating, and adding value to the dry waste that moved throughout the value chain.

It also meant that these informal waste workers would become known for their entrepreneurial abilities, as they professionalised and diversified their operations within the waste stream—including composting, managing waste at events, communicating their issues—while coming together to create solutions.

All this was possible through an on-going intervention that brought access to social security measures, which included scholarships for children, access to healthcare, low-cost housing, financial inclusion, skill development, learning opportunities, and running a children’s library.

Would you like to know more about Hasiru Dala and SWMRT?

As waste management is a social issue, for a social impact organisation like Hasiru Dala, community engagement is at the core of what it does. Its strategy is based on research, communication, a strong focus on data management, solidarity with other movements and networks, and the advocacy of municipal solid waste management programs.

It was all part of an organic growth process for Hasiru Dala, driven by being able to imagine the possible, which is the root of innovation. It believed that possibilities are infinite, including for the children of waste pickers in having the skills and realistic option to find their own path and career, away from waste picking. 

The initial coming together of the Solid Waste Management Roundtable (SWMRT), meant that mobilising waste picker movements needed to be quickly initiated and weaved into citizen campaigns, lest they continue to be disenfranchised and invisible.

Learn more about this case study—and similar ones that also support waste pickers to pursue better, healthier, more stable futures—in the new book, Leave No Trace: Vital Lessons from the Frontline of Waste and Ocean Plastic (available for download at https://www.vitalocean.org/book-download).

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