Are Mumbai's recyclers leading the city's green movement?

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community ManagerCarlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager

India's growing middle class has access to more goods, services and products than ever before. This new consumerism heaped atop rapid urbanization has left municipalities with an issue much less glamorous than the new malls, grocery stores and mega-shops dotting the cities. Massive solid waste accumulation has become an overwhelming environmental, health and aesthetic hazard for urban areas. Mumbai, for example, generates nearly 7,025 tons of waste on a daily basis, according to the Bombay Community Public Trust. Yet, as the study points out, this trash is from officially recognized areas of the city and likely leaves out thousands more tons from informal slums.

Developing countries often spend 20 to 50 percent of their municipal budgets on waste management, although only 50 percent of city residents — and often much less — are usually covered. As a result of this lack of infrastructure, a large informal ragpicking and recycling industry has grown among the urban poor. Ragpickers — mostly women and children — wade through piles of unwanted goods to salvage scraps that can be sold off to earn a daily living. A 2007 New York Times article identified more than 300,000 ragpickers in Delhi alone; a more recent Mint article claimed the capital city has 80,000 ragpickers. This discrepancy can likely be attributed to the invisibility in which they work. "More than 95 percent of New Delhi has no formal system of house-to-house garbage collection," says the article in The New York Times, "so it falls to the city's ragpickers, one of India's poorest and most marginalized groups, to provide this basic service for fellow citizens. They are not paid by the state for their work, relying instead on donations from the communities they serve, and on meager profits from the sale of discarded items."

Dharavi's 13th compound

In Mumbai, the ragpickers' daily collections most likely end up in the city's largest — though officially unrecognized — recycling center: Dharavi's 13th compound. In this small area of Mumbai's sprawling slum, 15,000 single-room factories recycle an estimated 80 percent of Mumbai's plastic waste. Could it be that these shanty room enterprises are actually leading the city's green movement?

According to an article in the Guardian that explores the narrow bylanes of the 13th Compound, a growing number of environmental campaigners say that Dharavi is "becoming the green lung stopping Mumbai choking to death on its own waste." The vast operation employs an estimated 250,000 of the urban poor who sort, separate, clean, and recycle everything imaginable collected from all corners of the city. Glass, paper, aluminum, plastics and tins are part of the 4,000 tons of waste that get processed every day. The industry generates US$72 million per year, says an article on Dharavi's recycling potential by the blog Green Jobs for India. While the staggering numbers have earned the 13th Compound a label of "Dharavi's recycling miracle," the headlines "fail to take Dharavi's recycling workers seriously, missing both the problems and potential in the sector." Recycling worldwide is a multi-billion dollar industry, but the lack of infrastructure in Dharavi works against the scale-up of the recycling industry to reach its true earning potential.

Investment in better infrastructure would not only have monetary payoffs, but would help to improve the conditions of workers and better their standard of living. The upgrades would need to include better spaces and equipment (much of the material is hazardous) along with training for workers.

Green workers, not ragpickers

Mumbai's ACORN Foundation works to improve conditions for the city's ragpickers — many of whom earn less than a dollar a day for their strenuous work. The project, called "Dharavi: Waste Matters for Green Workers," refers to these waste collectors not as ragpickers but as "green workers," recognizing their progressive role in a worldwide recycling movement. "If it were not for these ragpickers who recover, recycle, and ensure reuse of the waste, Mumbai would have been reduced to a dump yard with serious issues," says Vinod Shetty, Director of ACORN Foundation India.

The organization has 400 green workers engaged in its project and currently focuses on providing informal schooling to the workers' children in an effort to keep the kids from engaging in the trade at an early age. Handling garbage all day is also a health risk to these laborers, so in response, ACORN also organizes health programs and check-ups. Other initiatives for the members — who pay a nominal fee to join — are cultural events and arts lessons, as well as workshops on waste segregation. Most importantly, however, ACORN is working to bring official recognition to these "green workers." The organization assists with getting access to ration cards, and with these cards, comes an identity — a small step towards recognition.

Shetty says that his goal is to have the government introduce insurance schemes for these workers as well as protective equipment, including handing out gloves, masks, and other scavenging materials. Mumbai, like most municipalities around India, has done little to assist these workers, even as they fill the gap in government services.

Formalizing waste workers

While these informal garbage collectors have been quietly servicing the needs of urban residents, Delhi's municipal government decided last year to hand over the city's solid waste management to private firms, leaving the ragpickers without a livelihood. "The integration of waste-pickers into the doorstep collection of garbage is one of the methods that will guarantee their access to scrap; improve their working conditions; improve their earnings; and transform the status of the occupation from scavenging to service provision," says a case study, "Organizing the Unorganized." Officials claim the partnership would be unfeasible and costs towards minimum-wage salaries for the city's ragpickers would amount to INR15 lakh a day (US$1.5m), according to the Mint article mentioned above.

The city of Pune, however, has proven that incorporating the ragpickers into the city's waste management can be both socially responsible and economically viable. SWaCH, a social enterprise focused on solid waste collection and handling, is India's first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed ragpickers. In 2007, SWaCH entered into a public-private partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) to provide door-to-door waste management services to 200,000 Pune households. A strong wastepickers union, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), has existed in Pune since 1993 after it was established during a convention of ragpickers. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the union has made significant strides in bettering the lives and working conditions of its members, including gaining identity cards. Additionally, KKPKP proved that the ragpickers' work saved Pune several million dollars in waste-handling costs.

The PMC authorized the partnership after a pilot project was launched that showed the formalizing of ragpickers into the municipality's system effectively fills the gap between the household and the municipal waste collection service. "It also helped dispel myths of working with the urban poor and showed that waste collectors are punctual, regular, efficient, honest, and cordial," according to SWaCH. Furthermore, it showed that the residents of Pune — who would now pay the ragpickers rather than them relying on donations — would be willing to pay for the services.

The city of Pune has demonstrated the successful integration of marginalized groups and the willingness of the municipality to "tap into the grass-roots abilities of the poor." "Such growth can more substantially improve the lives of the ragpickers and can at the same time assist cities to move to greener and more sustainable futures," says a paper, "Alleviating Poverty and Greening the City: Women Ragpickers of Mumbai." SWaCH attributes its success to a strong pre-existing wastepickers union and sees a need for more unionization in other cities to move forward with this model elsewhere. A "strange paradox" has occurred in India, says SWaCH, where, despite a policy framework that opens up possibilities for the integration of wastepickers, few NGOs have initiated the organization of this group. The time is ripe for cities to think more innovatively about managing waste and incorporating an existing workforce of knowledgeable recyclers whose skills can be leveraged towards a cleaner and greener future.

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