Studies show that by 2050, India will need New Delhi-sized landfills to “dump” its trash. People produce waste, it’s no secret. Similarly, it’s no secret that the popular practice of using landfills for all waste is unsustainable. Landfills occupy valuable space, catch fire, release methane, carbon dioxide and leachate, and leach these and other harmful chemicals into our groundwater. The landfills themselves are a reflection of the myriad of systemic challenges facing the municipality, as the process by which waste is collected formally, informally, or perhaps not at all, reinforces a dysfunctional system.
Municipal solid waste in Bengaluru (Bangalore) is broadly categorized into three types wet (eg: compostable kitchen waste & garden leaf litter), dry (eg: paper, plastics etc.) and hazardous (eg: household biomedical wastes such as syringes or tablets) — by law, households are supposed segregate their waste this way before disposal. All of this is handled through one of two ways: the municipal collection and disposal system (i.e. through the formal system) or by the informal sector for recycling and recovery of materials, particularly for the dry-waste. The informal system is an entire value-chain of waste worker players beginning with waste pickers who may be picking up waste from as-yet uncollected roadside garbage piles, to traders in specific recyclable commodities.
A more in-depth understanding of Bengaluru’s informal sector is here: Informal Waste Workers Contribution in Bengaluru: Read Full Report
Of the estimated 3,000–4,000 tonnes of municipal solid-waste generated by Bengaluru, the informal sector workers are estimated to recycle around 1,050 tonnes. While municipal waste is almost entirely dumped in landfills, the informal waste workers segregate and recycle (as appropriate) the waste they collect. An individual informal waste picker earns her living by trading her recyclables to dealers (more popularly known as “scrap dealers”) for a fee on a daily basis — and up to 50% of the waste-pickers are women. The waste picker typically earns between 100–200 INR a day.
Waste pickers are unsung heroes who help in keeping the cities clean by subsidising the municipality’s solid waste management infrastructure services, usually without recognition, extremely low pay, working under unhealthy, often treacherous conditions and with very limited access to social and financial services.
The waste workers are exposed to hazardous conditions when collecting high value trash like plastic, metals, and glass from the unsegregated waste in the city, and they often return home to informal settlements where there is a shortage of basic services like clean water, electricity and sanitation. They may be exploited by waste contractors and intermediaries, and lack the authority and clout to mitigate these challenges and demand fair and transparent business practices. Many of them are detained or interrogated by the civic authorities, because they don’t have municipal identification, which legitimizes their work within the city waste management system.
Brief History of Civic Activism:
The efforts to address the formalization of informal waste workers to mitigate some of these challenges, hardships and environmental degradation, while simultaneously making the municipal waste system more efficient, started in late 1980s. In 1989 Center for Environment Education (CEE) started the Committee for Clean Bengaluru in partnership with various organizations, to promote segregation at source, which allows for downstream sorting efficiencies. But it was not until 2009 when citizens formed the Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT), a group dedicated to utilizing the court system to enable waste management restructuring. SWMRT engaged with the Lok Adalat (People’s court), a system of alternative dispute resolution (non-adversarial system) starting in 2010, which led to certain significant directives to the BBMP (governing body charged with managing city waste) to implement decentralized waste management across the city. This was a significant step, as the direct involvement of the citizens put pressure on the municipality.
More recently in 2011, Hasiru Dala (also known as HD — and whose name in Kannada means “Green Force”), began working on behalf of the waste workers, enabling them to receive social and financial benefits such as health insurance, identification cards and government pensions. HD is a member-based organization of waste workers in Bengaluru and they have helped over 7,500 informal waste workers to receive government-issued identification cards. As a result, 7,500 informal workers now have access to better working conditions as they can collect trash in the city with much less harassment by government authorities such as the police, than they had previously faced. Bengaluru has now made policy changes to institutionalise the contributions of the informal waste workers — by issuing operations contracts to the waste workers to operate the city’s Dry Waste Collection Centres (DWCCs-above). These operations contracts are written as Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) between the city, the waste worker, and Hasiru Dala as a mentor organisation.
HD began this change by helping the informal waste worker communities to redefine themselves as waste management professionals and training them to be entrepreneurs, creating jobs and providing education loans for their children.
In this journey of reinventing the informal waste workers to identity as waste professionals and entrepreneurs, HD faced many challenges. One of the critical challenges was access to credit. The needs that credit could help meet for the informal sector waste workers were many. Small loans could help in children’s education, tiding over a medical emergency or assisting with a special social occasion such as marriage, but they had limited utility. Access to credit was also critically important and lacking for their waste businesses to help them sustain and grow. Waste entrepreneurs effectively bought and sold recyclable material, thus there was a need for both working capital and investments to enable their businesses.
In 2015 S3IDF began its dialogue with HD in the context of research it was involved in, commissioned by the International Water Management Institute, on “Resource recovery and reuse” businesses in Bengaluru. This dialogue evolved into a partnership with HD, in which the partners worked together to recognise and frame the problem of access to credit for the informal waste workers. They jointly developed a vision of enabling the informal sector to finally become bankable for all their credit needs, and charting a pathway to this bankability. It was also recognised that along with access to credit, business mentoring support would be necessary to ensure credit is used effectively.
S3IDF convinced Rang De, a crowdsourcing platform, to provide low interest micro-finance for the poor, to create an online portfolio for the credit needs of Bengaluru’s informal waste entrepreneurs. S3IDF also provided a partial guarantee (along with Hasiru Dala) to address some of the risks of this portfolio. Hasiru Dala was the partner through which repayments from the waste workers were routed and S3IDF conducted due-diligence on all the entrepreneurs to receive loans.
Prior to S3IDF and HD enabling this additional financing, waste workers were forced to reach out to local money lenders, whose minimum interest rate was usually 24%, which often went up to 40% depending on the nature of the loan. This relationship with Rang De has also enabled access to around 150 education loans for informal sector waste workers.
The relationship and engagement with Rang De was planned to understand and create credit records for the informal sector workers. This was an essential stepping stone towards formal bankability.
The latest set of changes is a reform to allow the Dry Waste Collection Centres — now largely being run by informal waste workers — to undertake door-to-door collection of waste. In February of 2017 it was mandated that all DWCCs in Bengaluru will be managed by the waste workers themselves and will receive support from the municipality to undertake door-to-door collection of waste in their respective wards. As Nalini Shekhar of HD was quoted in the recent Hindu article, BBMP Plans to Turn Waste-Pickers into Entrepreneurs, “this is a huge step to empower waste-pickers in the city. Bengaluru is the first city in the country to engage with waste-pickers following the SWM Rules 2016.”
This ‘empowerment’ will not happen overnight, but the work that HD, in collaboration with partners like S3IDF, does with the waste worker enables waste workers to not only have access to the services they require to strengthen their enterprises, but also to re-imagine themselves as formal entrepreneurs with the confidence and skills to run a municipal waste management system.
This recognition of the informal waste workers is a critical step towards re-imagining Bengaluru’s municipal waste management system, into a more inclusive, efficient and productive operation that may be scaled beyond city-limits and across India.
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