Waste pickers in Pune and KKPKP

By Mariam AbazerionOct. 09, 2014in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for the Vikalp Sangam website

Waste Pickers at the Uruli dumpsite. Waste pickers have generally been a group of people at the bottom of the domestic worker hierarchy, frequently mistreated and abused while working under poor physical and social conditions. Source: KKPKP, 2010

In the past few decades, solid waste management has become a global concern due to growing urbanisation and changing lifestyles. In both urban areas and newly developing townships in India, many of the existing centralised waste management schemes have proven both ineffective and unsustainable; the evidence overflowing streets and uncollected waste bins.

About 188,500 tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) are generated in urban India every day, compared to 100,000 tonnes per day in 2000. It is no surprise then to hear that India is among the top ten countries generating the highest amount of MSW in the world, partly due to the sheer size of its urban population and partly to the high-consumption lifestyle urban residents have recently adopted.

Municipal officials have generally managed waste in India in a centralised manner, searching for solutions that attempt to quickly remove and destroy the material. Technologies that build on traditional methods of waste disposal— dumping, burying, and burning— have been scaled up to dispose of larger quantities of waste in the face of a growing supply; the result has been the development of a centralised waste management system that depends on large-scale disposal facilities such as landfills, dumping yards, and incinerators to manage waste accumulation in cities and developing townships. Landfilling, open dumping, and incinerating unfortunately remain among the most common methods of MSW disposal though they pose serious problems to public health and the environment, are highly unsustainable and resourcefully inefficient, and undermine the local economy and society, e.g. the informal waste sector.

It is not all doom and gloom however. Several initiatives undertaken by local communities throughout India have challenged the centralization of waste management, approaching the problem through an ecologically-conscious manner in hopes of reducing and recovering waste material. Many of these projects include waste reforms that:

  • Address individual consumption and disposal habits
  • Decentralize segregation and collection processes
  • Integrate the informal waste sector
  • Develop a participatory planning structure
  • Demand for more social, legal, and institutional provisions to enable sustainable waste management plans

Because these activities are essentially dependent on social and political participation, there is an common theme that emphasizes a participatory, decentralized, and recover-oriented approach for more sustainable waste management.

Several initiatives across India including those in Pune, Dharamshala, and Bir have been challenging the manner waste is being treated, from generation to collection and disposal, and searching for alternatives that move away from centralized, mechanized, unsustainable practices e.g. unsegregated collection waste bins, landfilling, incineration, waste-to-energy plants; and instead emphasize participatory and ecologically-conscious approaches such as door-to-door collection, plastic bans, waste segregation, recycling, recovering, composting, waste picker rights, reduced waste generation, and participatory waste management decision-making. In this first installment, I will discuss the waste picker movement in Pune and the success and setbacks the initiative has faced over the years.

Pune, Maharashtra: Formalising Informal Waste Pickers

In 1993, with the help of a few organized waste pickers and allied groups, over 2000 waste pickers attended a collective meeting to discuss their work conditions and bring light to their struggles. The results led to a collaborative initiative which they named Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) in the hopes that by working together, they could fight for social justice and improve their economic standing. Through their coordinated efforts, they created the first waste picker’s union in India.

A female waste picker sifts through trash at the Uruli Devachi landfill Source: KKPKP, 2010

KKPKP’s membership went up to 7000 in the first few years as waste pickers around Pune became more active and involved in the union. Tackling a variety of issues including labour, gender, and class affairs — one of the first cases KKPKP worked on was confronting police officers who had been taking bribes and sexually harassing many of the waste pickers — the union became officially recognised by the municipality in 1996. With this recognition, they were able to obtain identification cards, which laid the groundwork for improving their social status and protecting them from police harassment.

Of the work that KKPKP has accomplished, one of their greatest achievements was in December 2002 when KKPKP was able to secure medical insurance for its members; the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) became the first and only municipality in the country to pay the health insurance premiums from the annual budget for self-employed waste pickers as a gesture of recognition for their financial and environmental contributions to the city. The union is now exploring social security options for its members and has created interest-free loan schemes as well as scrap shops that buy recyclable material directly from the waste pickers. They have also set-up an education centre for their members and their families that is sustained by the interest accrued from their savings schemes.

Since 2002, KKPKP has been able to assure its members health insurance Source: KKPKP, 2010

There have been marked shifts in perception and rights towards waste pickers in Pune ever since they formed a collective identity. More active participation in programme planning and advocacy of crucial issues such as harassment and child labour, changes in personal and public perceptions, educational benefits, access to credit and bargaining power, and above all, increased access to source segregated material are among the positive changes that have been promoted since the founding of KKPKP.

In 2007, KKPKP created India’s first wholly-owned waste picker cooperative, Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) to standardise collection services and improve members’ working conditions. The co-op is authorised and compensated by the PMC to provide door-to-door waste collection and other waste management services. Currently with a membership of 2300 waste pickers, the co-op services over 330,000 households in 15 municipal wards of the PMC (about 47% of the city) on a contract basis, integrating member waste pickers into the waste collection and disposal system.

Pressures of Privatisation

As a result of years of pressure from urbanisation, lobbying, and poorly municipally-run waste management systems, there has been a growing tendency to contract out waste collection services and disposal to private companies. However, privatisation oftentimes prohibits waste pickers’ access to waste thereby threatening their livelihoods. In Pune, the unionisation of waste pickers has helped retain their access to municipal waste; however, contractors and other private waste management companies have increasingly viewed waste pickers as an obstacle into the waste market. Companies such as Hanjer Biotech Ltd and BVG Pvt. Ltd have tried to secure the city waste management market with municipal contracts and support, in competition to SWaCH’s door-to-door segregation services.

Alongside private companies, some civil groups believe the union has promoted the wrong ideals by supporting waste picking as a livelihood. The National Society for Clean Cities (NSCC) Pune, an organisation consisting mostly of middle-class residents, claims that the union has encouraged waste pickers to continue working under squalid conditions rather than shifting them into another field of service and allowing waste collection and disposal to become mechanised. The organisation has campaigned to ban waste picking on several occasions, citing:

“In rural India, no amount of arguments in support of livelihood and employment could justify the evil of a caste having to carry the night soil. Neither has child labour been condoned in urban India. Today, both evils are banned by law. It is now time when we must phase out the social evil of ragpicking; it is time to look for alternative ways of dealing with the increasing urban garbage in our Indian cities and towns.”

This notion of waste picking as an “evil in society” has promoted the view that waste pickers can never live in dignity and that displacing them with machines will help them and the community in the long-run.

However, KKPKP has proven that waste picking can be a dignified source of income if it is treated as such; formalising waste pickers into the waste management system and having residents interact with the people collecting their waste develops sensitivity from society that can change the perception of these citizens and their occupation. Waste picking in most of India is carried out under unsanitary conditions because of the lack of place and status society gives these workers, despite the work being financially, environmentally, and resourcefully productive. In Pune, displacing thousands of ragpickers for more expensive and often inefficient technology is also neither a preferred option for the waste pickers that depend on their job for a livelihood and the union for social and financial opportunities nor for the municipality that benefits from the services KKPKP and SwaCH provide members. The Planning Commission has confirmed this view, reporting:

“In the long run, it might be worthwhile to organise ragpickers’ cooperatives, so that besides getting a fair wage for their work, they can benefit from the non-formal education and learn skills that will be of use as they grow older.”

The displacement of these workers for mechanic operators also neither eases environmental nor waste concerns. Most mechanised collection services disregard or inadequately segregate recyclable waste, opting for the most convenient and less costly operation that oftentimes involves dumping or burning unsegregated waste in landfills or incinerators. Changing the way waste is recovered from landfills to door-to-door collection and elevating the status of these workers through integration into the waste management system and increased interaction with residents will transform society’s perception of waste pickers from one of undignified to one of essential.

For these reasons and more, KKPKP continues challenging the NSCC as well as private companies and contractors by creating a model of waste management that incorporates waste pickers into the waste management system as a means to ensure and enhance the livelihoods of these informal waste workers. As a competitor in the waste market, this model not only integrates waste workers from the informal into the formal sector, enhancing their social and economic well-being, but also offers cheaper and more recovery-efficient services at a lower environmental cost.

This article is the first installment of a series of articles that discusses community waste initiatives in India.

स्वच्छ पुणे सेवा सहकारी संस्थेने प्रस्तुत केलेली कचरा व्यवस्थापनाविषयी चित्रफीत. A film (in Marathi, with subtitles in English) on the work of SWaCH – Waste managers of Pune.

Read Waste Picking is Work – an interview with Lakshmi Narayanan, co-founder of KKPKP and SWaCH, by Marketa Vinkelhoferova

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