The Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers: Enabling Waste Pickers to Find Their Voice
Interview with Kabir Arora and Haris Najib by Dan Abril
Founded in 2008, the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers (AIW) was established by four organizations working on the issues of waste pickers: Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), Chintan, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS). These organizations allied to ensure that the collective voice of waste pickers is represented at the national public agenda.
As an organization representing waste pickers, AIW has been actively involved in advocating the cause of waste pickers by conducting training for member organizations, development of policy analysis and recommendations, generation of research studies, and organizing of the waste-pickers in India
We had a chance to talk with the alliance’s National Coordinator, Kabir Arora and his associate, Assistant Coordinator, Haris Najib on the challenges and joys of handling such a noble organization.
What are the priorities of the Alliance?
Currently, we are working on a database. Many of our members have been keeping rudimentary data of organized waste-pickers. Still, we need a more detailed database to provide us with an overview of the membership and the condition of waste pickers in India. As such, the database shall also serve as a resource for our present and future advocacy work.
We also keep a tab on programmes and policies when it comes to many aspects such as plastic waste management. The Indian policy landscape is very dynamic and we have to keep negotiating with authorities so models created out of years of struggle of waste pickers won’t be disregarded simply because there is a change in guard.
The Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) has also come into focus since many organizations worked to have the role of waste pickers recognised in the discussions.
What are the main ongoing campaigns of AIW?
As we are an alliance engaged in organizing of informal workers, our key work is to ensure that waste pickers have access to social protection measures such as medical care and state insurance programs and benefits like scholarships for their children, and skill-building courses.
In addition, our focus has been on the involvement of waste-pickers in Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) and the integration of waste-pickers in the Solid and Plastic Waste Management Systems.
What are your biggest accomplishments/achievements?
One of our major achievements was in 2016 with the inclusion of waste pickers and informal waste collectors in the Solid and Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016. This was borne out of the years of advocacy work that started with the Alliance’s inception in 2008. Since that win, we have been engaged in high-level campaigns and have pushed for the participation of waste pickers in discussions on issues that impact the sector.
Municipalities now understand that waste pickers need to be involved in the process. Before the alliance was set up, people’s approach to waste and waste pickers and understanding of the informal recycling sector was very generic. Now they see the intricacies of waste picking and are able to deal with it in strategic ways through different programs in the community. It gives us a bigger space to work as a coalition. We are happy that we have reached this status.
What challenges are you facing? How is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?
As an alliance of waste pickers, we face a number of challenges. First, as a network composed of more than 25 members, it takes us time to reach a consensus on issues. Consensus requires multiple consultations, and as a network, we do not shy away from that process. Members face many challenges including municipal authorities changing their policies and we have to keep negotiating with the authorities to keep policies favourable to waste pickers.
Second, not all waste pickers get the benefits outlined in various laws and policies. Given the extensive size of the sector and our limited resources, we can only reach a limited few.
The outbreak of COVID-19 brought more challenges. Waste pickers were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Aside from the loss of income under lockdown rules, several waste pickers faced domestic violence and it was quite sad that we could not provide support for everyone who needed the assistance. On the other hand, some cities – like Bangalore, and Delhi gave waste pickers passes so they can continue collecting waste door-to-door.
Overall, the COVID-19 tragedy brought by the pandemic held us together. The network became strong and the number of people holding the network together increased. Our present goal of creating a database is a result of the pandemic.
What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?
Incineration is not a big challenge at this point since the union government refuses to fund waste incineration projects. Currently, the state governments are asked to look for the funds by themselves if they want to construct one in their area.
However, we face other issues such as climate change and plastic pollution. Both are horrible and they are interconnected. Waste pickers’ settlements are littered with no-value discards since there are no collection facilities set up by the municipality. Technically, the government should be the one collecting materials that have no value but unfortunately, they don’t do this function. Waste pickers are left with no other option but to burn them as keeping the discards costs waste pickers’ money.
How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next years?
We will continue to advocate for the inclusion of waste pickers and focus on organizing and strengthening the network. Overall, we have a positive outlook as the law is on our side – but even though we have the law on our side – we have to be on guard as the privatization of waste management would displace waste pickers and we have to ensure that waste pickers are not removed and would continue to have a place in the waste management system.
The ongoing national and international discussions on the production, management, and recycling of plastic -have placed a new set of questions regarding just transition for waste pickers, finding the answers to those questions would be a new quest.
Another area of work would be exploring structures and systems for waste pickers to handle the ever-increasing frequency of extreme weather events.
What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region (and in the world) are living in right now?
The crisis of waste is also the crisis in how our local governments function. For waste pickers, waste is a livelihood and it is an opportunity to feed their family. There is a great book, “Rubbish Belongs to the Poor” by Patrick O’ Hare, the book argues that waste should be seen as a common for vulnerable populations to support itself and this is something we should look into as governments move to the privatization of waste management, leaves waste-pickers out of work
We also look at waste from a very technical point – this includes incineration to dispose of waste. These technical solutions lack human participation. It does not look at the concern of labour, the concern of workers, and the concern of communities surrounded by waste. There is a justice concern there. Without the emphasis on of labour and workers’ rights and entitlements, you cannot come up with solutions to deal with such complex problems.
Do you collaborate with partners in other regions? If so, how?
We are a member of the India Plastics Pact and we are leading the discussion on the inclusion of the informal sector in the process of recovering and recycling plastic. We collaborate regularly with other organizations working on informal workers’ rights such as the Working People Charter and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
We also have exchange programmes with waste-pickers organizations in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. If resources permit, we get in touch with waste pickers’ organizations in other countries and we ask them to visit us and check how the work is done or vice versa – And finally, we collaborate with environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF- India), GAIA, and GAIA members in India.
How does your work on waste relate to social justice?
The quest for dignity for waste pickers. We organize waste pickers to articulate their aspirations and hopes for the future and work together for their realization. We as a network have a policy that nothing about waste-pickers or waste management, without waste-pickers, and ensure that waste-pickers represent and speak for themselves. This has been very clear to us since day one.
Internally we invest a lot on training and workers’ education as it is a central reference point to ensure that all our waste pickers are represented and listened to.
Who do you admire most in environmental work (in your country or in the world)?
Three organizations are pioneers and serve as an inspiration for AIW. First is SMS. We applaud their skill in stirring the conversation towards the involvement of waste pickers in waste management and actually putting it into practice. Then there is Hasiru Dala. Their immense creativity when it comes to waste management and looking at the reuse economy as an alternative source of livelihood for waste pickers is remarkable. Also, there is Chintan in Delhi for their regular reporting in regards to air pollution and their opposition towards waste incineration.
We would also like to cite a group of sisters from Shillong who organized themselves and is currently managing organic waste and a composting plant – and they were the ones who approached us! They are an inspiration as they organized themselves.
For updates, check out the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers at https://aiw.globalrec.org/. If interested in supporting the creation of their database and their continuing education and training for waste pickers, you may reach them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.