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Carving Out an Official Role for Waste Pickers in Urban Waste Management

5 Dec 2017

  • Authors: V. Kalyan Shankar, Rohini Sahni

Carving Out an Official Role for Waste Pickers in Urban Waste Management
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference.

Waste pickers are key stakeholders in sustainable urban waste management, thereby contributing to local and global resilience. As recycling of materials has become more widespread in developed and developing countries, it has provided waste pickers with an opportunity to improve their status and well-being through collectivization and engagement with local urban government. This think piece explores how waste pickers in the Indian city of Pune have been able to organize and legitimize their labour and carve out a formal space for themselves in the city's waste management chain.

V. Kalyan Shankar is presently working as a researcher with Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, Pune (India). He was Fulbright-Nehru Postdoctoral Fellow at The New School, 2015-16.
Rohini Sahni is a retired Professor at the Department of Economics, Savitribai Phule Pune University.

Changing the structure of waste management chains

In Indian cities, the rapid pace of urbanization and economic growth has led to a commensurate increase in both quantity and diversity of waste forms. According to estimates in 2010-11, Delhi generated 6,800 tons of municipal solid waste per day; Mumbai generated 6,500 tons; and a host of cities fell in the range of 1,000-3,000 tons. The volumes are expected to grow rapidly, making it imperative to devise sustainable waste management solutions. Municipalities in India spend anywhere between ten and fifty percent of their annual budgetary expenditure on solid waste management. However, the results are far from satisfactory. In 2011-12, urban India generated 127,486 tons of solid waste every day of which 89,334 tons was collected and only 15,881 tons treated further. These figures are illustrative of the broader systemic problems related to waste plaguing Indian cities. This think piece outlines an innovative regulatory experiment in the city of Pune in western India, where waste pickers were contractually engaged by the Urban Local Body (ULB) to collect segregated waste directly from households. This structural alteration in the municipal waste chain was responsible for remarkably improving waste management in the city.

To collect household waste, the conventional practice is for municipalities to provide public bins in which households are to dump all types of waste. The aggregated waste is disposed of at landfills or, worse still, openly incinerated. The absence of a robust last-mile-collection system is responsible not only for leakages in collection but also the lack of waste segregation. Municipalities remain inadequately equipped to segregate and recover recyclable materials from the mass of mixed waste. The burden of retrieval falls on informal waste pickers who see economic value in recyclables which the municipalities fail to realize. For example, an emptied soft drink bottle may find its way into the public bin only for the waste pickers to accumulate it—its value is now ascertained by the specific grade of plastic, glass or metal. The spike from zero valuation at the bin to a higher valuation at the scrap shop makes waste a highly profitable object. Operating on this logic, specialized informal waste-collecting chains have evolved, parallel to municipal ones, for items like paper, plastic, metal, glass and electronics. Waste pickers are the key initiators of these chains as they collect, sort and sell waste to scrap dealers. The dealers in turn accumulate the recyclables and supply them to formal recycling units. The recycling industry thus acquires size and scale moving up the ladder.

Across urban India, waste pickers are acknowledged to be a sizeable, growing population. Delhi was estimated to have 150,000 to 200,000 waste pickers (Chaturvedi and Gidwani, 2011); Mumbai 30,000, Kolkata 20,000, and Hyderabad 35,000. Despite their numbers and importance in waste recycling, waste pickers lack official recognition of their work. When waste pickers collect recyclables from public bins or landfills, they are viewed as transgressing into municipal spaces, making them vulnerable to abuse and graft. Moreover, increasing privatization of municipal waste chains has led to confrontations between informal waste pickers and formal private actors over questions of access and right to derive profit from waste. Private firms provide capital intensive end-of-the-line solutions in waste management, such as managing landfills and waste-to-energy conversion. Operating on what is termed a tipping fee based model, their revenues are generated by the quantity of waste brought to the waste-handling facility. For these private firms, waste pickers represent a loss of income as they wean away recyclables that would otherwise have come to the waste-handling site. Against this backdrop, the challenge for waste pickers has been to devise strategies to legitimize their labour and formally carve out a space for themselves in the waste management chain. One such experiment has been successfully implemented in the city of Pune.

Empowering waste pickers

In October 2008, SWaCH—India’s first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed waste pickers and other urban poor—entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). It was the culmination of years of organizational work resulting in a pilot programme between PMC and Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a trade union of waste pickers operational in the city since 1993. While collectivization of waste pickers has been initiated in other parts of the country, KKPKP/SWaCH represent the largest and most successful of such institutions. KKPKP has over 10,000 registered members presently, of which around 2,700 are working under SWaCH. As part of the contract, PMC is responsible for providing collection equipment and gear to the workers, an operational grant to defray management costs, as well as covering worker welfare benefits and a partial subsidy of the costs of waste collection from slums. In return, SWaCH workers undertake door-to-door collection of segregated dry (inorganic) and wet (organic) waste across several city wards. A similar contract came into effect with the adjoining Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) in 2010. The contracts not only integrated waste pickers into the official waste chain but also put in place a sustainable system of waste collection and segregation in the city.

In the itinerant form, waste pickers were self-employed and dealt only with recyclable forms of waste. As SWaCH workers, they are now the official interface between the Urban Local Body and households. The operational mechanics work as follows: 2-3 workers are responsible for collecting waste from 250-300 households. The wet component of waste is either composted in situ in the residential complexes or passed on to municipal trucks. Waste pickers have the right to retain the recyclables collected, which are sorted further and sold. In 2016, SWaCH workers collected waste from 0.5 million households in the city and diverted over 170 tons of dry waste towards recycling every day.

Urban sustainability and social justice

The PMC-SWaCH contract is a unique collaboration between the state and the informal sector toward implementing sustainable waste solutions. It puts into practice several long-standing policy recommendations on the role of waste pickers in urban solid waste management in India. In 1995, the Report of the High Power Committee on Solid Waste Management in India had suggested that ragpickers or their collectives could be involved in primary collection of waste from urban households. It also envisaged a segregation of inorganic recyclable materials at source by households. The guidelines were further ratified through the Municipal Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. In addition to making the two urban bodies compliant with the new rules, SWaCH has been insistent that its services have significant economic and environmental value. According to the Ministry of Urban Development, ULBs spent anywhere between Rs. 500 to 1,500 per ton on solid waste collection, transportation, treatment and disposal. The figures would be much higher if not for waste pickers. By drawing away recyclable dry waste, waste pickers are reducing the overall quantity of waste to be disposed of and thereby ensuring fewer trips by municipal trucks to the landfills. According to research quoted in a 2012 WIEGO policy brief, “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 municipal waste transport”.

The organizational realities of urban waste handling in India require the committed empowerment of waste pickers, especially where the privatization of municipal waste chains is increasingly jeopardizing their precarious livelihoods. Against this backdrop, SWaCH provides an alternative pattern of development. In India, waste picking by retrieving recyclables from public bins has conventionally been a female occupation. Men have been more involved in the transactional forms, for example purchasing waste directly from households. Creating SWaCH transformed the hitherto self-employed, waste-picking women into a body of internally-organized workers that gained legitimacy from the state and enabled them to increase the dignity of their labour. For the time being, it has also ensured that the value created from the primary accumulation of waste was not usurped by private contractors. The SWaCH experience can be suitably scaled up if waste pickers elsewhere are similarly organized and integrated into municipal waste chains. If urban sustainability is to be inclusive of social justice, this remains a model worth emulating in other Indian cities.

NOTE This article is drawn from a full-length paper accepted for publication as a Special Article in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Chaturvedi, Bharati and Vinay Gidwani. 2011. "The Right to Waste." In India’s New Economic Policy: A Critical Analysis, edited by Waquar Ahmed, Amitabh Kundu and Richard Peet, 125-153. New York: Routledge.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.