The Waste Pickers’ Revolution: Organising for Livelihoods and Rights

A scorchingly insightful conversation about the waste pickers who keep the dream and possibility of Swachh Bharat alive by risking their own lives

LILA: Let us begin this conversation with a brief background on SWaCH. The collective started as the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a membership-based trade union for waste pickers, and has now taken the form of SWaCH, a waste-pickers’ cooperative. Can you tell us briefly about this journey and how it evolved with time? 

Harshad Barde: The formation of SWaCH and what it is doing today is a culmination of about three decades of mobilising and organising the informal waste pickers in Pune. It started with a group of non-formal educators who were trying to teach out of school children who happened to sort waste at landfill sites, dumping grounds and waste containers. They were trying to find out where these children were coming from, who they were, and why they were at these sites. What they quickly realised was that the children were there because of the socio-economic pressures on their parents. None of these children were getting an education because they didn’t have birth certificates! Realising this, an attempt was made to attract more children to specially organised classes by giving them easy access to good quality recyclable waste every time they attended. When this was proposed, the parents of these children came forward and said why don’t you allow us better access to waste, and in turn we can send our children to school, which was obviously a better solution. So it was actually through the children that we entered the world of waste pickers. This was also very important to the journey because the waste picker women in Pune are very concerned about their children’s education. So, it wasn’t like a project, where we were trying to set up something for a specific community. Instead, it was an attempt to find out more about the waste pickers and their communities. In order to do this, we brought together a few waste pickers to identify the most difficult issues that they were facing. 

Based on this very localised interaction, one of the first problems we encountered was that every time you asked the waste pickers what they do, they would say, “We don’t really do anything.” When asked how they managed to run their houses, they would say, “oh, we pick some waste in the morning, and that’s how we make a living.” The fact that this is a productive occupation, the outcome of which directly impacts the city and the environment was not recognised by anyone – neither the waste pickers, nor the legislation, administration and politicians.  

Second, the waste pickers were often harassed by the police and taken in for crimes they hadn’t committed on account of being considered easy suspects. The waste pickers would often have to pay a bribe to be let out. So we brought them together in collective action, such that whenever a case of harassment came to the fore, they would go to the police station together, talk to them, and even fight where necessary. Subsequently, the Commissioner of Police, and the different departments of police also got involved in the advocacy activities. We wanted the police to recognise that the waste pickers weren’t just running around, stealing from people; they were doing proper work.  

We realised that all this was only possible if there was an identity associated with what the waste pickers were doing, which didn’t exist at the time. There wasn’t even a recognition of the entire ecosystem that surrounded their work – from scrap shops that bought the waste and perpetuated exploitative relationship with them, to the health hazards that their work posed. Even when we went to the Pimpri-Chinchvad Municipal Corporation, to demand recognition of the waste pickers’ occupation, they weren’t very forthcoming because there was no group advocating for the waste pickers. So, around 1993-94, after realising the need to organise, and having many discussions about ways of organising, the waste pickers decided to form a trade union. Around 1993-94, under the guidance provided by Baba Adhav, a leading figure in the working class movement in Maharashtra, the union was established and started making formal representation to the local corporations. By 1996, the Pimpri-Chinchvad Municipal Corporation started issuing stamped identity cards for the waste pickers, which became like an endorsement of the work they were doing.  

Waste pickers are usually the most socially marginalised group in any area. In Pune, they are mostly migrants who have come from drought-prone area, have no other job opportunity, and are also often the principle livelihood earners in the family. Coming from such a background, they often have no proof of identity, birth, residence, etc., other than the KKPKP cards [the Corporation cards] that were given to them. So, in a way, this endorsement meant that they actually came into existence on paper for the first time. This was a big step forward, because now they could access the commercial areas and go to the police – wherever you were stopped or asked questions, you had some basic proof of who you were.  

Another big issue that they were facing was access to credit. Even today this is an issue, but at that time the only way to access credit was to borrow from relatives, loan sharks, goldsmiths or from the scrap shops where they were selling waste. For most of these options, you had to pay very heavy interest rates. It became a perpetual cycle of paying interest, and never being able to repay the complete amount to the lender. Sometimes, the scrap shop dealer would not only give you higher interest rates, but also start cutting the rates that he pays you for the waste, which meant you were bonded to him until you could pay back that money.  

To address this problem faced by the waste pickers, the credit cooperative was set up. The credit cooperative would give loans at rates that were at par with the informal sector – so from 10%, the interest rates were brought down to about 1% per month with an another 1% contribution to the social security fund– and the members could pay back their external loans, and then repay the cooperative at lower rates. This also made the general informal sector more competitive, because other lenders like scrap shops and goldsmiths started bringing down their rates as well, to meet the market demand.  

LILA: Beyond the trade union and cooperative bank, the waste pickers’ collective has also today grown to engage with many different organisations and projects. Can you tell us about the current nature of SWaCH, and how it came to take shape?   

Harshad Barde: From 2000 onwards, after the Almitra Patel case, the government mandated that all cities set up door-step waste collection services. In Pune, garbage containers were placed on every street, for residents to directly dump their waste into. The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) also started to give out contracts to trucks owners who would pick up the garbage containers, or send vehicles in the area into which the residents could directly dump their waste. Now the waste pickers’ livelihood is based on their access to waste. If they can access waste, they can segregate it, take out the recyclables and sell them. But after the rule was passed in 2000, their access to waste, and subsequently their livelihoods, were severely affected. So the members of the Trade Union got together and went to the PMC to find a solution to this problem. A pilot project was devised wherein waste pickers were asked to collect waste directly from people’s houses, and bring it to the dumping site / local container / municipal vehicle. The proposal to the corporation was that we wouldn’t charge any money from them, except for a nominal administration fee, and instead collect money directly from the residents on a monthly basis. A lot of citizens also agreed to give that small user fee because under this arrangement, the waste wouldn’t get collected in containers in front of their houses, and they wouldn’t have to watch waste pickers rummage through it. This model was applied in different ways across the city, and it was fairly successful.  

Based on this pilot, the PMC was convinced to provide equipment like pushcarts and buckets for the waste pickers, as well as a letter of appeal to the residents to participate in and support this new system. That letter of appeal increased our coverage over the next one year from 15,000 to 1,00,000 properties. Once that happened, the PMC started to see how they could formalise the labour. After many rounds of discussions with waste-picker groups from different bastis, we decided to start a not-for-profit cooperative, wherein every person who works would be a member and owner. If there was a profit, it would belong to everybody and be put back into the system. The waste pickers were also required to contribute a small percentage of their income back to the cooperative, so that it could run programmes to improve the quality of service. The general body of the municipal corporation resolved to help establish the cooperative in 2006 and entered into a formal five year Memorandum of Understanding, once the cooperative was formed. In this way, the cooperative was set up in 2007. A year after its formation, the PMC made a resolution to give a five-year waste collection contract to the cooperative.  

There were definitely some bumps along the way. There was general distrust and confusion about the system between all parties, including the erstwhile contractors, and after 2013, there was no renewal of the contract because of various political reasons. The cooperative was also not keen on renewing the contract because of all the problems it had faced, and it kind of went into a limbo. But over the next two years, the work managed to sustain on its own. Before that we had 120 supervisors for this work, but 2013 onwards, we have only had about 9 people in total in the organisation, mostly doing backend work. At the same time, the number of waste pickers grew to 1800, collecting waste from over 3 lakh properties. There were many gaps in this period, but the system still continued to work. Seeing that sense of responsibility, the PMC decided to start a second contract with the cooperative. Now, the cooperative covers around 8.5 lakh properties through its 3500 waste-picker members.  

LILA: You have talked about many  hurdles that the cooperative has had to overcome. While cooperatives help marginalised groups find solidarity and support, like in the case of the waste pickers, they also demand suspension of certain personal freedoms for the larger good. Did the waste pickers associated with SWaCH also sense this when the cooperative was first set up? Can you share some insights on the process of organisation, based on this experience?  

Harshad Barde: Both in the context of the trade union as well as the cooperative, this issue has always impacted the mobilising work. Though factors like safeguarding from police harassment and discovering a sense of identity were significant enough for the collective to come together, the best way for the individual waste picker to understand this was through her own community. We had to actually work with a group of waste pickers, show them the quantified impact of their work on the city’s finances and environment to help them realise their own importance, and eventually build leaders out of them, who could further spread this awareness amongst the community. For instance, getting the waste pickers to participate in the pilot project I mentioned earlier was a challenge. Though it gave them slightly better access to waste on account of it being segregated, this model brought many changes to the nature of their work. When you work at a landfill, there are no time restrictions. You can start anytime, end anytime, and work for as long as you want. You don’t have to answer anyone and there’s no interaction with anyone required. Also, you can take as much waste as you want. The shift from that to the doorstep collection meant you had to walk much more, interact with people, and show up at the same time every day. Your carrying capacity also reduced because along with potential recyclables, you were also carrying wet waste and other such material. The monthly payment model meant that they had to reduce their daily income, and lose out money for the first month. A lot of them didn’t trust that people would pay them at the end of the month. In order to help overcome these concerns, the leaders amongst the waste pickers took a leap of faith and started working as per the new model. This worked to bring the others on board as the waste pickers would go back to the basti and talk about their work, which gave the others a sense of assurance.  

Another way for the waste pickers to work together and organise was through their dealings with scrap shop owners. Since the scrap shops were making profit off their work, the waste pickers were entitled to some basic fair-price practices – printed receipts, best rates, regular and timely payment, keeping an account of the kind of material sold, ensuring no child labour is engaged, providing an annual bonus, etc. The waste pickers adopted collective bargaining as a means to ensure that these demands were met. They decided to form scrap shops of their own, to be run by their sons and daughters as per these requirements. Once the first such scrap shop was set up in Pimpri-Chinchvad, immediately almost 20-25 scrap shops in the area agreed to the waste pickers’ demands so as not to lose business. The idea was never to set up a scrap shop. The idea was to create a beacon or a lighthouse that creates a ripple effect in the market. The owner of this scrap shop was not a leader of waste pickers in that sense, but she provided a way ahead for both scrap shop owners and the waste pickers.  

The most crucial element in all this is that the organisation has not been done by activists. Of course there have been activists involved in different ways, but it was successful because the waste pickers were asked to do it themselves. Right from the beginning systems have been set in a way that someone from the community is the basti representative, and they are made responsible for organising all the meetings, engaging with the waste pickers, making sure everyone’s problems are brought to the notice of the union, etc. These positions don’t come with power but responsibility, so the elected representative is usually the most articulate and the most active in the community, who is willing to do this work. Every month meetings are organised centrally, where all the representatives come together to discuss the issues of the month, as well as the transactions of the credit cooperative are confirmed. Only when the contracts are to be drawn up, which requires certain expertise, that the lawyers and other professionals are brought in. But the decision-making process is set up in a democratic and localised structure. So that sense of community and identity, added to the fact that they are the ones who make the decisions, and therefore are also responsible to make sure the decisions go through, is something that has helped both the trade union and the cooperative.  

LILA: SWaCH is a cooperative that has been built largely with and by women. Hearing about the empowerment a democratic setup is able to provide, my mind goes to some of the most common problems such women-driven collectives face – domestic conflicts and social pressures as a result of being embedded within patriarchal societies. Has it been hard to set up a cooperative with women? How did SWaCH navigate these challenges? 

Harshad Barde: One thing that I think is not true is that it is more difficult to organise women. I can’t imagine the hell that would’ve been created with a team of male representatives sitting in meetings and trying to figure out what to do next! Because they are women, they are actually able to engage in conversations and arrive at solutions. I might be wrong; these are purely my own observations.  

Socially, it is a very empowering process to be a part of a group where you have a voice, are able to participate in the decision making process, and earn a good, respectable living on your own and are not be beholden to anybody as an employee. To engage with citizens of all caste, class, colour, language, creed and build a relationship with them; then go back home, take care of your children, take care of your household; to be able to take a loan from the cooperative and educate your children – these activities are extremely empowering. And that sense impacts the domestic end for waste pickers as well – because the waste pickers often fight at work, with Municipal workers and also amongst each other, it often gives waste pickers a voice at home. Many a times, when there is an issue of domestic abuse, waste pickers have come together to fight with the husband. So there is a support system that the Union sort of creates for waste pickers by bringing the members of the community together. As a result of that, many of the women have become very vocal. The children in turn see that the mother is the livelihood provider.  

Over the years, men have also joined the collective, though the majority are still women. Now, there is dignity in this labour, there is education in this labour, there is less work and stress involved, there is regular income and also more scope for mechanising. So all these have created opportunities for men to come into the system. There are mixed reports on how the dynamics of that work. Sometimes the husbands, sons, and fathers-in-law  work together with the women, which many have reported has brought a positive change in their relationship. Whereas men were previously suspicious of what the women were doing, that has now changed because they can see what is happening. Many times, the women also continue to control the income. If you ask the women why they do this work, in most cases they will say to educate their children and help them escape the cycle of poverty. So the women actually keep the money they save away and use it to educate their children, whereas the men may not. That also makes a huge difference, because then the income goes back to the family. That way, bringing women together despite all the pressures is actually the reason SWaCH has been able to survive for so long.  

LILA: Waste-picking has hardly ever been a preference for most workers, especially considering it wasn’t even acknowledged as work till a few years ago. You mentioned that many have come into this work because they did not have the qualifications, experience or access to do other jobs. Now that their children have gotten the access and opportunity to educate themselves, what are the aspirations of the younger generation? Are they looking to move into other means of employment? What does the future for waste-picking look like?  

Harshad Barde: While many waste-pickers still enter this sector due to lack of other opportunities, many more continue within the cooperative due to the improving incomes and job stability (relative to other informal sector occupations). The trade union and cooperative have invested a lot of time and energy over the years towards improving the access to education for the children of waste pickers through various advocacy and resource-provision activities. While I can’t speak for the children, the members seem to aspire for their children to take advantage of these opportunities. Many young members of the community still enter waste-picking after the age of 18 despite having other opportunities simply because of the lack of jobs in the market, and the stable decent work offered by the cooperative. Some are entering the new gig economy, while others are entering affiliated trades like scrap trading, transportation, waste management, etc. A good number of children opt for graduation and even post-graduation studies. A few have become engineers, lawyers and journalists. Some have joined the cooperative as supervisors and coordinators.  

Local governments, including PMC, are under pressure to deliver improved services and cleaner cities for citizens. This has led to many cities taking harsh decisions negatively impacting waste-picking as an occupation. Some find themselves pushed into the landfills as cities ‘clean-up’ their streets, while many have their recyclables confiscated and access to waste lost in favour of contractors for municipal collection and waste management. This has been exacerbated by cities like Indore, which top the Cleanliness survey, but have done this at the expense of a complete removal of waste-pickers from the streets, often forcefully.  

So far, Pune has avoided this phenomenon because of the inclusionary practices of local government and the presence of the cooperative. But there is no guarantee that tomorrow, the next year, the city will continue its commitment towards sustainable waste management through the inclusion of waste-pickers. As cities change their waste-management systems, they need to be more sensitive, inclusive and take extraordinary measures to preserve the livelihoods of those who have recycled the city’s trash for generations and continue to do so without recognition or remuneration. The ideal ‘future’ of the occupation lies in upgrading existing livelihoods through integration of waste-pickers into formal waste-management, or through practices like those of the PMC and SWaCH cooperative that ensure a win-win situation for both the government and the waste-pickers.  

LILA: One of the key concerns for this line of employment remains safety of the workers. Debates around this have ranged from better waste segregation and management to compelling the manufacturers to take on the responsibility of their products even after they have been sold and used. What is the current discourse on this concern? How have these problems been addressed so far, and what are the possibilities of a solution in the future?  

Harshad Barde: Segregation at source is absolutely necessary for improving the working conditions of waste-pickers. However, this can only be achieved through better / improved doorstep collection systems in cities.  

Unless existing waste-pickers are integrated into doorstep waste collection systems, they lose access to waste (as containers and open dumping reduces), and the improvement in segregation at source does not benefit waste-pickers at all.  

Laws, regulations and lip-service all point towards better personal protective equipment, integration and income stability, though the real situation differs from city to city. Pune waste-pickers have got access to waste at source, user fees for collection directly from source, some have access to sorting sheds and temporary storage spaces, medical insurance, scholarship for children and formal recognition, which means that future systems will have to necessarily include these waste-pickers. Many cities have taken cognisance of the rules and are attempting to integrate waste-pickers, but it still remains a major challenge.  

The Extended Producer Responsibility regulations are not very clear about the mode of implementation and therefore its implementation differs from place to place. While some companies recognise the importance of waste-pickers, many others prefer working with corporate entities to facilitate collection, mostly because of the effort necessary in identifying and integrating informal waste-pickers, which must be led by the urban local bodies. In Pune, the presence of a strong waste-pickers movement and organisation and the partnership with the PMC has allowed Swach to create a non-EPR business development oriented system for collection of low-value and no-value plastics (e.g. Multi-layered plastics) directly from waste-pickers and for channelizing it to Recycling to the tune of 5 Metric Tonnes per day, and increasing. This can very much be replicated in other cities through investment in organising waste-pickers / engaging waste-pickers’ collectives. 

New rules for implementation are being drafted and we hope that they will recognise the critical role played by waste-pickers as well as membership based organisations of waste-pickers (as against corporate NGOs which could appropriate the identity and income of waste-pickers in the process). The Alliance of Indian waste-pickers has come forward to encourage companies and governments to engage with formal membership-based waste-picker organisations across multiple cities in India.  

LILA: SWaCH’s work has been able to bring important transformation in waste-picking as an occupation — from addressing social taboos and stigmas to improving governance and implementation of various schemes and technologies in the field. What are the possibilities of addressing these problems on a national scale – since the social, cultural and political contexts would vary across the country? Would we need to develop different decentralised methodologies that might be able to link up and move towards improving the status of waste-pickers across the country?  

Harshad Barde: Absolutely. Each city would need to devise its own strategy, based on its demographics and socio-economic conditions, just as there must be for overall waste-management. Such strategies need to be guided by some fundamental principles of preservation of livelihoods, inclusiveness, integration of waste-pickers, acknowledging the need for and providing waste-pickers access to waste and space in a decentralised manner, planning for long term social-financial-economic sustainability of SWM systems and avoiding contracts /systems that reduce potential for recycling and diversion from source (for e.g. tipping fee based contracts). However, in the race to show better results, especially in terms of visual cleanliness, cities often trample upon waste-pickers’ right to livelihoods regarding access to waste and space. They do so without offering them an opportunity for capacity building and integration into waste-collection / management systems. The fundamental principles of preservation of livelihood can be easily captured in processes that identify, recognise, empower, include and uplift waste-pickers, if only cities are willing to invest the time and energy necessary for the same. The social, environmental and economic benefits to cities from increased segregation / sorting / recycling and reduced transport / processing / dumping far outweigh the investment necessary to establish and operate such systems.  The desire to create wealth from waste needs to be tempered by the realisation that unless this wealth is channelled to the bottom of the pyramid, it will deprive tens of thousands, if not lakhs, of livelihoods, negatively impact recycling rates and therefore increasing the cost to the city and the environment. 

The government regulations and policies (SWM Rules) need to be fleshed out and implemented in earnest partnership with local waste-picker led organisations with a common goal of establishing sustainable waste management systems through upgraded livelihoods. 

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