The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has a major objective of achieving 100% scientific, solid waste management (SWM) across all the statutory towns in India.
The revised rules (Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016) continue to emphasise upon the need to ensure source segregation as the most important prerequisite for the scientific and environmentally sound disposal of solid waste.
We have seen an extensive deployment of collection, transportation and waste disposal technologies across Indian cities in the recent past. In most cases, adoption of the technological choices (waste to energy or WtE) appears to be reinforcing a centralised system of SWM.
Waste management practices such as decentralised composting of wet waste and promotion of recycling through source segregation have become secondary to the deployment of WtE-driven waste collection and transportation infrastructure, across several Indian cities.
It has also been observed that compliance to environmental norms has also not been followed by the existing WtE plants. People residing in the vicinity of these plants are constantly complaining of health risks associated with the operation of these plants near residential areas.
It is widely reported that existing WtE plants continue to burn mixed waste, despite a number of judicial interventions in favour of compliance to the environmental norms.
Despite these odds, waste pickers continue to play a key role in the primary collection and segregation of the solid waste, informally.
In most cases, the formal system of waste management does not recognise the contribution of waste pickers.
These informal waste collectors provide their services to the residents and urban local bodies (ULBs) without any recognition of their immense contribution in environmentally sound ways of managing the solid waste.
Their services are utilised by the residents either at a very low cost or in many cases, free of cost. Due to constant ignorance of the ULBs, informal waste pickers are often subjected to exploitation by the contractors in the waste management system, at multiple levels.
Their livelihood entirely depends upon the sale of recyclables that they recover from the segregation of the solid waste. The quality of their lives and livelihood opportunities remain unchanged despite recognition of their immense contribution in the policy documents.
However, waste pickers continue to get excluded from the waste management system. In several cases, waste pickers are thrown out of the city.
A community roundtable was held at Nizamuddin Basti, New Delhi, on October 2, 2021—to deliberate upon the concerns and mechanisms of waste management. The roundtable was attended by more than 100 waste pickers, which included both men and women.
The panelist included:
The roundtable began with Shashi Pandit from DASAM (Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch) speaking about how the waste workers have not progressed since decades, despite changes in laws or the administration.
“Waste workers were living in misery and continue to do so.” He raised a question about why the waste workers are still kept away from the waste management system?
The first speaker was Mansoor Raza (Janpahal), who began the session about the need for recognition for the unorganised sector. An identity card for the unorganised sector was deemed necessary for which a long battle was fought.
The Supreme Court passed an order to the central government, in which it was directed to form an inventory of the workers in the unorganised sector.
He further elaborated about the E-Shram portal and card and anyone from the unorganised sector aged between 16-59 years can register for it. A phone number and one’s Aadhaar card needs to be linked with the bank to receive benefits.
Bhawani Shankar (Citizens from Clean Air, Gurugram), showed a plastic, Bisleri bottle, and said that we are from the category of people who produce waste. He shared a personal experience of his interaction with three siblings who were picking up waste.
In his interaction, he asked the kids why they don’t go to school. The kids informed him that they were beaten by the teachers as they used to pick up waste.
He despaired at their condition and said that at the age where the kids should study and play, they were picking up waste for a decent livelihood and were scolded by their teacher as a result.
He further mentioned the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005) and that minimum employment guarantee in the rural areas is not applicable throughout the country.
Most of the workers migrate from rural to urban India in search of better livelihood and end up picking up waste, due to no other source of livelihood being accessible.
Shankar asked the workers to move from being unorganised to organised, as their quality and quantity of work deserves dignity and respect.
Baley Bhai (independent activist) spoke about the exploitation that the waste workers face at the hands of the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) and police officials. The workers have to pay them a small bounty to pick up waste.
He said that the waste pickers are the real agents of “Swacch Bharat” (clean India) and yet, they are at the receiving end of exploitation and brutality.
Rahul Sharma (CPR) began speaking about technology and WtE plants. He said that the countries where the WtE plant is operated only in places… Where most of the waste is dry. In India, however, most of the waste generated is wet waste and burning waste is not a viable solution.
He elaborated on waste mining and suggested alternatives through which waste can be managed, instead of burning it in incinerators. Sharma laid stress on decentralised waste management and its implication for the waste pickers.
Sidharth Singh, from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), spoke about the SWM Rules (2016). It talks about bringing the informal sector into the mainstream and involving them in the waste management system.
He also spoke about the knowledge that the waste workers have about plastics and how it can be recycled, whereas this knowledge is missing from the masses.
In the end, he concluded by saying that the workers when united can bring changes and make their demands heard. If they remain unorganised, their work will continue to be looked down upon and deprive them of the earnings and respect they deserve.
Sunny migrated to Delhi from Bihar’s Patna, with his sister and brother-in-law when he was a child. Since then, he has been involved in the occupation of waste working.
When asked about his problems as a waste worker, he elaborated that it’s difficult for them to find places to dump the collected waste as the large bins have now been removed from the societies where they used to dump the waste earlier.
They are charged with fine of ₹5,000 and their cart can be seized if they are caught dumping waste. Therefore, they have to dump it during the night.
He added that he learned from the roundtable that although people call him “koodey wala” (garbage man), he is not a koodey wala. Rather, it’s the people who create the waste who are the koodey wale. He is a “swacchta nayak” (hero of cleanliness) as he is the one who cleans that waste.
So, he got a different perspective to look at his occupation.
Karam Das, a waste worker from Bihar, moved to Delhi in 1992. Since then, he has been collecting waste from different societies. He has three children: two girls, and a boy. He is his family’s sole bread earner. As the sole bread earner in a family of five, he talked about the challenges he faced.
He described the difficulties he and his family were facing due to a water shortage in their neighborhood. Because of this, his wife has to fetch water from the public handpump. At times, he has to pay for drinking water.
Whenever he was questioned about how he felt about collecting waste from building societies, he answered, “I feel judged by them.” He shared that he has always been looked down on and scrutinized. Moreover, he has is associated with contagious diseases.
Sanjeev Kumar, from DASAM, spoke about the Swachh Bharat Mission, its second phase, and how the workers who keep the city clean, live in hazardous and dirty environment. Despite living in central Delhi, their neighbourhood is neglected.
He concluded the roundtable by thanking the waste workers for their contribution towards the society and environment.