Waste pickers in Ahmedabad. Photo: Pritpal Randhawa

Waste not, want not

The working lives of India’s urban waste pickers show the hidden connections between everything that matters in the city.

STEPS Centre
May 5, 2015 · 8 min read

It’s 8 a.m. in the city of Ahmedabad, India. 25 women gather by a roadside in the morning sun. They are getting ready to collect rubbish from the 6,656 households which make up the slum area of Juna Vadaj, towards the north of the city.

Each woman collects waste from around 250 houses every day, going door to door with a hand cart containing six plastic boxes, with a white sack for recyclables. The women earn 2000 rupees a month, and can make up to 200–250 rupees extra through selling the recyclables.

The rest of the rubbish is collected by one of the municipality’s trucks which takes it to landfill. There, hundreds of other waste pickers are also at work, sorting through the city’s waste and collecting remaining recyclables to sell.

The women are part of a small army of informal waste pickers, organised into a cooperative which operates alongside Ahmedabad’s more conventional waste collection system. Gitanjali Cooperative Society was formed by a central trade union, SEWA, which has existed for over 30 years. In October 2013 there were around 350 women in the cooperative.

Gitanjali Cooperative Society. Photo: Pritpal Randhawa

SEWA organises a small army of 49,240 waste pickers and cleaners in the city, many of whom collect waste from the landfill site. After collection, they bring the recyclable waste back to self-built dwellings known as jhuggies.

The alleyways are lined with huge sacks, piled high, ready to be sorted into different materials — paper, glass, plastic bottles and so on. Each waste picker earns 2000–2500 rupees per month from selling the recyclables on to dealers.

Jhuggies in Ahmedabadad. Photo: Pritpal Randhawa

Ahmedabad is not the only city in India with a large community of waste pickers. In Delhi, 300,000 waste pickers separate recyclables from household rubbish, saving about 1,500 tonnes a day from landfill. As Delhi’s consumers produce more and more rubbish, landfill sites are becoming overwhelmed.

Incineration — another, much more centralised option for getting rid of waste — is also part of the city’s strategy for getting rid of waste.

Incinerators solve the problem of overloaded landfill sites. But they have sparked protests from those unlucky enough to live downwind of the fumes they emit. And waste pickers are naturally unhappy about seeing part of their livelihood go up in smoke.

A protest in Delhi, in front of the chimneys of an incinerator designed to turn waste into electricity.

Though waste pickers are poor, the benefits of their industry add up to a massive sum for the local economy: the informal sector was estimated to add a ‘social value’ of about 3.5 billion rupees to the Delhi economy in 2002–2003. Much of the waste which gets thrown out could be recycled, so the waste pickers play a vital role in connecting households to recycling dealers and processors.

Amazingly, despite this, India’s policies for dealing with urban waste hardly acknowledge the role of waste pickers and the informal sector. It’s as if they live in a parallel worlds.

The roots of this story go back to the mid 1990s, when there was still no national legislation for dealing with India’s urban waste. Then, in 1994, pneumonic plague broke out in Surat, Gujarat’s second largest city, causing widespread panic. Monsoon rains had made the city’s clogged sewers overflow, with animal carcasses littering the system. 52 people died and about a quarter of the city’s 1.5 million people fled their homes, fearing quarantine.

Newsweek covers the Surat plague in October 1994.

The horror of the Surat plague — along with vibrant environmental activism both within and outside of India’s legal system, in the years that followed — convinced the government to act. National rules to manage urban waste were set in the year 2000, setting out how it should be collected, disposed of, divided, stored and treated. Under these rules, and with changes in technology and local governance, a system of waste management evolved, dominated by public-private partnerships and waste-to-energy technologies.

Thirteen years later, in 2013, draft amendments to the rules were published. This was an opportunity to recognise the long history of India’s waste pickers and the informal sector in working with and alongside the authorities. But the draft policy’s lack of appreciation of the informal sector — including the waste pickers — and the realities on the ground means that crucial links between water, food, waste and the environment are overlooked.

Water and the city

A temporary water collection point in Delhi. As there is no reliable supply from the authorities, local residents tap into the main supply to siphon water for their homes. Photo: Pritpal Randhawa

In Delhi, formal policies aimed at getting a safe and reliable supply of clean, safe water are acted out through a complicated web of national and local agencies. But they bypass many poor and marginalised citizens, who have to find alternative ways to get water.

These informal methods include reusing polluted waste water, crossing busy train lines to get to pumps, or illegal tapping into pipelines, with the risk of discovery by local officials.

The dangers of ill health, serious injury or death, or falling foul of the law, are risks that poorer residents often have to run in order to get the water they need. But locals are also coming up with innovative ways to make water work for them — for example, methods of re-using wastewater for producing food on farmland at the edge of the city.

The STEPS Centre’s peri-urban project studied water access, informality and conflicts on the edge of Delhi. One of the project’s publications, ‘The Water Cookbook’, includes vivid illustrations by the researcher and artist Bhagwati Prasad mixing together culture, religion, infrastructure, maps and everyday life, rooted in everyday tensions between poor and wealthy areas, government and the private sector.

STEPS Centre research with these communities in peri-urban Delhi suggested that the city’s planners should aim for a more integrated approach to urban management, which recognised the links between food, water and the environment, and which supported these informal methods.

Even if those in charge aren’t particularly keen on including marginalised people in their decision-making yet, they might see the benefits of an approach which would join up water access, livelihoods, environmental protection and food security, instead of treating them as separate problems.

Hidden connections

Food, water, health — the most basic elements of life — are bound up with how the city deals with its waste. Though waste picking is informal work, done largely by poor people, the work they do collectively plays a vital role.

Cities like Ahmedabad, Pune and Bangalore have begun to realise that there are different ways to manage urban waste. Large-scale, private sector led technological fixes for urban waste management, such as incinerators for turning waste to energy, are being challenged by more localised, decentralised systems in partnership with waste pickers.

Linking informal waste management with the formal system of handling waste can cut down on pressures on increasingly scarce natural resources, including poorer people and moving from a throw-away economy to a focus on ‘reuse, restore and recycle’.

If supported appropriately, this approach might reduce the health risks of water and air pollution. Waste picking can cut down on air and water pollution, as more gets recycled. Composting the organic waste, instead of sending it to landfill, also eventually brings benefits to food growers. This could be boosted if the government provided more incentives to using compost, in places where artificial and inorganic fertilisers are heavily subsidised.

“The lack of appreciation of the informal sector and the realities on the ground means crucial links between water, food, waste & the environment are overlooked.”

In 2013, as the country’s policy on urban waste was being revised, the STEPS Centre, through our Delhi-based partner Toxicslink, submitted a set of formal objections to try to address these missing connections.

Waste is not just an environmental policy issue, although it’s mainly framed that way in policy documents. India’s cities are expanding and changing in ever new and mind-altering ways, and the flows of waste, water and other materials within and beyond them are more complex than urban policies suggest.

Though public authorities are slow to realise it, privatising the waste system can’t replace the informal sector. Instead, the STEPS Centre’s research suggests that new links could be formed between the informal system of waste pickers and the government-run formal systems. Part of the challenge in doing this is making sure that crucial conversations and decisions are opened up to more voices from the informal sector.

In Delhi, the waste pickers’ union, Lok Adhikar, has started to make a new connection between the informal world of its members and the private sector. In 2014, Lok Adhikar signed a contract for segregation of waste at approximately 45 community bins in Rohini Zone, an upmarket area to Delhi’s northwest.

Convinced in part by the STEPS Centre’s research into similar arrangements in Ahmedabad, the union overcame its initial reluctance to sign up. The first signs are promising, and the organisation has been offered a similar kind of contract for the Civil Lines Zone, to the north of the city. The arrangement not only gives more security of livelihood to the informal waste pickers in the union — it also shows that there is a valid alternative to the privatised model of handling waste.

Managing India’s urban waste will always be about more than just the waste itself — it’s about jobs, money, people’s health, safe food, energy and access to clean water — and the complicated flows between them from one place to another. It’s also about more abstract questions too — justice, power, politics, and the need to organise.

As this story suggests, creating more sustainable cities isn’t just about finding green fixes — it’s about negotiating different and conflicting viewpoints, values, conflicts, trade-offs and uncertainties together, revealing hidden connections and making new ones.

The ESRC STEPS Centre project Pathways for Environmental Health in Transitional Spaces works with partners in Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad to study the environmental health implications of current and alternative initiatives to manage solid waste in cities.

A policy briefing (May 2015), ‘Rethinking urban waste management in India’ (PDF) addresses these issues in more detail.

This story was written with the support of Fiona Marshall of the STEPS Centre (project convenor), Pritpal Singh and Pravin Kushwaha from the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (part of a team led by Pranav Desai) at Jawaharlal Nehru University for help with this story, to colleagues at Sarai in New Delhi for the material on water in peri-urban areas, and to Dharmendra Yadav of Lokadhikar. The text is published under a Creative Commons attribution licence; the images may only be used with prior permission.

Future STEPS Centre work on sustainable urbanisation aims to reveal and debate the possibilities for development trajectories which will lead to more sustainable cities. The researchers aim to rethink urban development through a sustainability lens, in order to break down disciplinary silos and integrate social justice and environmental perspectives. Learning from local innovations and the lived experiences of diverse groups of people, the research will challenge the assumptions in mainstream policies and plans and identify opportunities for debate and intervention. For more information, contact Fiona Marshall.

Stories from STEPS

Tracing pathways to sustainability through marginalised ideas, people and practices

STEPS Centre

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An ESRC Centre exploring how sustainability relates to politics, development, science & technology. Hosted at IDS + SPRU, Sussex University. steps-centre.org

Stories from STEPS

Tracing pathways to sustainability through marginalised ideas, people and practices

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