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Mending what works

By Bharati Chaturvedi

Waste can be a tool to break poverty when used imaginatively. In Nainital, Haridwar, Nagpur and several other cities, public-private partnerships in solid waste management have displaced the invisible, informal-sector wastepickers and traders instead of nurturing and upgrading them

Things as they stand

Nainital is a romantically named hill town, popular with tourists and a base for many scenic spots in Kumaon, in the Himalayas. Like other places in the region, it is named after a local lake. Till the ’90s, Nainital was a prime summer destination. Then with more spending power, holiday destinations changed. Nainital too urbanised rapidly. Trash became a key concern. Till just recently, a scheme called Mission Butterfly tried to convert Nainital into a zero-waste town. The Mission drew in community involvement, job-creation and more responsible action on the part of waste-generators. Then, it was time to upgrade. Nainital decided to improve its solid waste management under the Ministry of Urban Development’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Much like other JNNURM-funded infrastructure improvement programmes across the country, Naintal started looking to enter into a public-private partnership (PPP) with private waste management firms.

Amongst the five bidders (1) on October 16, 2012, three had already tarnished their reputations by displacing wastepickers and small waste dealers. SPML had provided similar services in three zones of Delhi. As they began to fulfil their contractual obligations to the city, Chintan found that nearly 50% of Delhi’s informal sector waste service-providers in the area (2) quickly became unemployed or underemployed. This kind of PPP model could not exist without displacing wastepickers. In fact, it competed with them for the same plastics, paper and metal -- stuff that could be sold in the recycling markets of Delhi. Another bidder, Ramky Enviro Engineers Ltd, followed a similar business model and has only recently tried to work with the informal sector in small areas. The winner in Nainital was A2Z Maintenance and Engineering Service Ltd. But the company was no replacement for Mission Butterfly, which subsequently closed. Like its other two competitors, A2Z’s business model competed with the informal sector in previous projects, displacing them from their only source of livelihood.

Haridwar, another city in Uttaranchal Pradesh, offers a similarly telling tale. An additional bidder for a PPP in Haridwar was Hanjer Biotech Pvt Limited. Hanjer is also implementing an integrated waste management project in Nagpur. The Nagpur project is located next to a landfill, where over 300 women wastepickers worked. None of them were included in the project’s planning and implementation. When I visited the plant, several workers were involved in unskilled work -- lifting and moving waste (3). “Surely some of the women wastepickers could have been hired for such work?” I asked one of proprietors, a few months later (4), in another meeting. “Firstly, these women, we waited for them. They never came from the front,” he replied. “They always came jumping over from the back. This is not correct.” In addition, he added, he didn’t think this would be women’s work.

The problem is Nainital and Haridwar are not unusual. Across India, the informal sector is being displaced by a new regime of solid waste management (SWM), a predatory regime of PPP in which only a predefined ‘public’ and a predefined, capital-intensive ‘private’ have a place. All else either don’t fit or are easily pushed aside to make way for grander, more modern plans for the city.

For several years, a complex network of wastepickers, itinerant buyers, waste traders and sorters have picked up, segregated and recycled the increasing amounts of paper, plastic, metal and glass that we trash. We owe these often silent and invisible workers in the underbelly of our cities for their persistent labour of efficiently recycling nearly 20% of our rubbish. Not just that, they avert greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a huge margin. In 2008, Chintan tried to answer the question: How much GHG do informal sector recyclers really save? After a long year of struggling with the question, we got some stunning answers. The data showed that in Delhi alone, the waste recycling system run by the informal sector saved more than 3.6 times the GHG emissions any single formal project that had applied for carbon credits had ever done (5). While the projects received carbon credits, the wastepickers, far greater emission-averters, have never been thanked. They add value to discards, as much as 750% (6) to a unit of plastic. It is not a question of a few thousand waste recyclers; India is estimated to have about 1.5 to 2 million wastepickers alone (7), approximating about 10% (8) of the world’s total. In every large city of the developing world, nearly 1% (9) of the population comprises people who earn a living off waste recycling. Instead of receiving our gratitude, these resource recyclers are being displaced by new ideas of what a modern city looks like and appropriate waste management practices within it.

Central to these new ideas of SWM is the fact that the private contractor needs to be assigned property rights to the city’s waste. The contractor, in most cases, is a corporate entity that must not just break even, but make profits. To make these, contracts specifically assign the contractor the right to waste. This is similar to fencing public spaces to create private property as happened during the Industrial Revolution in England and happens continually anywhere profits can be made from privatising the commons. Waste, once the property of the municipality, an elected body, is now owned by a corporate body. And informal waste workers, once living off the waste, are transformed from informal to illegal.

What is happening?

India is witnessing a shift in how waste is managed. Cookie-cutter solutions are being offered in a scenario where waste has become a lucrative industry. The informal sector, even if it is organised, is being seen as unskilled labour rather than entrepreneurs. Three key trends are clear (10).

There has been a shift in perspective

Many new trends are based on changing ideas of waste management and a lack of clear understanding of how these ideas might apply in the Indian context, or any developing country for that matter. These are outlined below:

  • Centralisation: This is considered to be key in solid waste management. Given the large quantities, many municipalities believe that only a large facility, at a centralised level, can handle waste. There is little trust in a decentralised approach despite several well-documented pilot projects that have taken place in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi, for instance, in the 1990s and 2000s. Only a few decentralised plans have continued to be robust, and these are ones that have scaled-up.
  • Privatisation at multiple levels of SWM: Leading from the understanding of centralisation is privatisation, where large companies are entrusted with running several processes related to the collection and processing of solid waste. Hence, starting from the mid-2000s, several cities have outsourced waste management services to private companies. These services include doorstep-collection, transportation to landfills, and processing of waste into energy and other products.
  • Profits from waste-based products: Several companies see profits in a business model where they own the waste and can either sell it directly to the recycling industry or through processing, such as making compost or briquettes. A prerequisite of such a model is that companies should be able to procure contracts that allow them ownership over waste, and thereby illegalise any prior, existing enterprise that might affect their own profit margins. Such contracts often receive government and public support because private waste firms are seen as, and indeed portray themselves as, key players in cleaning up the city.
  • Lack of understanding of the informal recycling sector: Often policymakers are unable to understand the critical role of various commodity supply chains that the informal sector provides the basis of, or even the quantum of their work. Instead, most see the informal sector as a small number of urban poor making a small contribution, and therefore not germane to SWM planning or any urban planning at all despite global studies that have shown quite the opposite. One reason is because of poor dissemination of information within India, and lack of knowledge networks that policy and decision-makers are part of. An outcome of this is a formal marginalisation of the informal sector.
  • Indifference to reprocessing: The informal recycling sector in India is, in large part, a trade chain. Wastepickers at the bottom pick up and insert recyclables into this chain. Only materials that can be reprocessed are traded, making the technology and the reprocessors critical. Such reprocessors are rarely included in discussions, far less in plans. Hence, popular understanding on this issue is that paper, plastics, metals -- the discards these plants depend on -- are as much the problem as wet waste that comprises over 60% of total waste. Consequently, an unequal competition is created between informal waste workers and waste-to-energy and other such technologies. This identifies the wrong problem, and therefore, an inappropriate solution. Moreover, not understanding the needs of the reprocessing sector results in exclusion from city plans, and hence illegalises their important work.

Brazen flouting of laws and policies 

Several policies and rules have, in fact, been inclusive of the informal sector. A brief summary is here:

  • E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 allow for the inclusion of informal sector associations that can be authorised for e-waste collection and dismantling.
  • Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 in Section 6 (c) states that the municipality is responsible for engaging ‘agencies or groups working in waste management including wastepickers’.
  • The National Action Plan for Climate Change, 2009, in its part on the Mission on Urban Sustainability, states: ‘While the informal sector is the backbone of India’s highly successful recycling system, unfortunately a number of municipal regulations impede the operation of the recyclers, owing to which they remain at a tiny scale without access to finance or improved recycling technologies.’
  • The CAG Audit on Municipal Solid Waste in India (December 2008) also recommends (Chapter 3, Section 3.5) that the ‘MOEF/states should consider providing legal recognition to ragpickers so that recycling work becomes more organised and also ensure better working conditions for them’.
  • The National Environment Policy, 2006, which states: ‘Give legal recognition to, and strengthen the informal sector systems of collection and recycling of various materials. In particular enhance their access to institutional finance and relevant technologies.’(Section 5.2.8, point (e), pg 36)
  • The Supreme Court accepted recommendations of the report of the committee constituted by the Supreme Court in 1999 (‘Solid Waste Management in Class 1 Cities in India’). Sections 3.4.7 and 3.4.8 (pg 34) of this report say that ragpickers must be converted into doorstep waste collectors as a means of upgradation.

Many of these are directly linked with Chintan’s advocacy efforts. But rules and policies are only the tip of the iceberg. Implementing them is a much more daunting task, even with institutional oversight.

Take JNNURM, for example. Chintan’s 2012 report ‘Failing the Grade’ (11) evaluated how these rules were implemented, five years after the CAG’s performance audit of solid waste management in India was published. Chintan studied Patna, Ahmedabad, Faridabad, Varanasi, Mathura, Allahabad, Hyderabad, Indore, Bangalore, Nagpur, Rajkot, Cochin, Pune and Delhi. We evaluated the proposals the cities had submitted to JNNURM for solid waste, corresponding master plans, and the reality on the ground based on visits, discussions and observations. Our focus was to study these 14 cities under JNNURM to understand how they had included the informal recycling sector, either by not damaging their livelihoods or by formalising or upgrading them by making their work safe, formal and recognised. We assumed that compliance with rules and following the spirit of the policies would be highly encouraged, if not essential, under the government’s flagship JNNURM scheme. Unfortunately, Chintan found that none of the 14 cities had fully implemented these rules and policies.

We also observed that several cities, such as Patna and Nagpur, had displaced wastepicker-inclusive systems instead of nurturing and upgrading them. This had been done by privatising aspects of the SWM chain -- doorstep-collection and at the landfill --in the two cities respectively. Our report concluded that JNNURM could have fostered inclusion of the informal sector in SWM systems. Instead, it failed this opportunity. Of the eight detailed SWM projects that Chintan could access, only six cities even mentioned wastepickers in their plans (Ahmedabad, Faridabad, Varanasi, Allahabad, Indore and Cochin). The reality was even worse. In Ahmedabad, wastepickers lost their doorstep-collection contract to a small private company. In Varanasi and Indore, another private company, A2Z, was contracted for SWM, including doorstep collection. In our prior experience, A2Z has been particularly hostile to any prospects of wastepicker inclusion. In Faridabad, two private contractors were providing solid waste management services. Of these, Ramkey, contracted for door-to-door collection, was working with Safai Sena, an association of wastepickers and other small waste workers, to ensure inclusion. This step was not a result of encouragement from officials at any level but an initiative by the two partners.

But this is only one part of the story, the part where waste is picked up and access denied to workers at the neighbourhood and ward level. In most small and large cities today, landfills or dumps are also work sites for wastepickers and small traders and sorters. Waste-to-energy plants, an internationally favoured SWM solution, cause livelihood loss too. Chintan measured (12) the impact of the waste-to-energy plant in Okhla on worker livelihoods. To do this, the team compared a baseline study undertaken five months before the plant began operations to a study conducted nine months after operations. The results were astounding. First, there was significant depopulation (approximately 40%) among those dependent on landfill wastes. Second, landfill pickers reported the lowest earnings of all the waste workers surveyed in the area and a 24% decrease in incomes during the last eight months. Overall, respondents noted a 5% decrease in the percentage of children attending school between last winter and now. Sixty-seven per cent of these cited not having enough money and having to enlist children as income earners as the primary reasons for their children stopping schooling.

At every point in the waste handling chain -- collection, segregation, reprocessing -- the informal sector finds its livelihood challenged.

A lost opportunity

The idea of inclusive solid waste management is not a pie in the sky. It has been demonstrated on the ground across India.Good practices include the Bhopal Municipal Corporation’s orders for doorstep-collection, Delhi and Pune’s doorstep-collection and Bangalore’s I-card system. These cities have emerged as the best in terms of implementation, but all with glaring deviations. In Rishikesh, local actors have set up an effective doorstep-collection system that creates livelihoods for the urban poor. In Pune, inclusive doorstep-collection systems for approximately 200,000 households co-exist with mass displacement of wastepickers from a Hanjer-run landfill and loss of a contract due to unfair competition from a private company in Chinchwad (13). In Delhi, the NDMC works with Chintan to include wastepickers in doorstep-collection and has recognised itinerant buyers, but MCD is an entirely different story.

More recently, several initiatives across India, often in partnership with the German bilateral agency GIZ (14), have leveraged e-waste rules to create livelihoods for waste workers by collecting e-waste. Local waste collectors and itinerant buyers are trained to collect (for free or by purchasing) various kinds of e-waste channelling it into authorised recycling units.

What to make of this, then?

Waste can be a tool to break poverty, if used imaginatively. Informal sector wastepickers, sorters, traders and reprocessors handle nearly 20% of urban waste in a highly efficient manner that is poorly understood and even more poorly acknowledged. Despite several progressive rules and policies, municipalities across cities tend to favour PPPs that dislocate the informal sector, and deprive some citizens of their livelihoods, and all citizens of their right to a greener, cleaner city. On the other hand, there is no dearth of possibilities, many of which currently exist on the ground. The challenge is to see the informal sector waste recyclers with new eyes. 

(Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and writer. She is the Founder and Director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group)


1, October 16, 2012
2 ‘Scavenger Hunt’(November 15, 2007), The Economist. Quoting an unpublished survey by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. See also Bhargava, Vishal, Chaturvedi, Bharati. 2006. Film: 60 Kilos. This figure was researched in 2005 in various zones of Delhi, with a focus on the south zone and portrayed in the film
3 The author visited the site on various days in Nagpur in March 2011 and 2012, both times as a partnership to investigate and understand the issue, with local NGOs, Centre for Sustainable Development and Church of North India -- Social Service Institute
4 Discussion with Tyrewalla on September 2011, at the project site of Bhandewadi, Faridabad, Gurgaon
5 Cooling Agents. 2009. Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group and the Advocacy Project, Washington DC.
6 Chaturvedi, Bharati. 1998. Public Waste, Private Enterprise. New Delhi. Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Berlin
7 Estimates submitted to the Ministry of Labour by AIW (Alliance of Indian Wastepickers), 2012
8 Calculated from ‘A Scrap of Decency’, op-ed by Bharati Chaturvedi. New York Times, August 5, 2009
9 Carl Bartone. ‘The Value in Wastes’. January 1988. Decade Watch.
10 Adapted from ‘Failing the Grade: How Cities Across India are Breaking the Rules, Ignoring the Informal Recycling Sector and Unable to Make the Grade’.2012. Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group
11 Ibid
12 A study was undertaken in October 2012, taking August 2011 data as the baseline to measure the impact. The study is to be released shortly
13 Personal communication. Also, Times of India (Pune), ‘SWaCH Wastepickers Seek Employment with PCMC-appointed waste contractors’. October 5, 2012
14 Chintan has been working with GIZ to organise informal workers for services of e-waste collection since 2008 and this comment is based on our working knowledge. Further information has been cross-verified from the website:

Infochange News & Features, August 2013