Contributed by Jyoti Mhapsekar (Stree Mukti Sanghatana)

Photo from SMS Facebook.

The issue of urban poverty is intricately linked with solid waste. Although not generally recognized, self-employed workers or the informal sector make a major contribution to the economy, public health, and a sustainable environment, as well as provide cost-effective raw materials to the industry. In most cities in the world, women form the major part of this informal sector. Women waste pickers contribution to the city includes: 

  • Reduction in municipal waste-handling and transport costs
  • Supply of raw material to recycling factories
  • Space saving at the dumping grounds 
  • Resource recovery in the form of valuable compost and conservation of the environment when trained in these alternate skills 

Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS- ‘Women’s Liberation Organisation’) was established in 1975. Since then, it has directed its efforts towards the upliftment of women’s position in the society by creating awareness on  women’s issues and issues related to equality, peace, and development through various activities like theater, Family Counseling Centers, and Adolescent sensitization programs, to mention a few.

Photo from SMS Facebook.

SMS started work for the Parisar Bhagini (women waste pickers) of Mumbai in 1998.  The Parisar Vikas programme aims at addressing the problems of rag picking women engaged in the ‘menial’ tasks of ‘cleaning waste’ and also the problem of waste management engulfing current urban existence.

Studies in  some cities of India documented that: (a) In India waste picking is a caste and gender-based activity, (b) 90% of all waste pickers are the primary breadwinners for their families, (c) Waste pickers carry heavy loads and lack the facility of transport or storage, (d) Waste pickers suffer serious health hazards resulting from unhygienic work conditions. The life of a waste picker is totally insecure, (e) Middlemen exploit waste pickers, leading to further degradation of their condition, and (f) Most of the waste pickers are caught in the moneylender’s trap (many times a middleman himself) and pay heavy interest.

With this knowledge, SMS organized waste pickers in self help groups (SHGs) and initiated a federation of SHGs. Mumbai Municipal Corporation handed over a few dry waste centers to this federation. SMS also organized massive training programs in composting, Biomethanation, gardening, and fine sorting of dry waste to add value to the waste pickers’ work. This led to more than a hundred Zero Waste projects being implemented in housing complexes of Mumbai. Later in 2004, a few cooperatives of waste pickers were formed to sign contracts with these housing complexes as their designated waste workers. The approach adopted by SMS was found to be most sustainable as it imparts the beneficiaries with knowledge and skills, advocates for their rights, and helps them to get organised. It combines Economy, Empowerment, and Environment. This helps waste pickers to have increased bargaining power, better social organisation, increased income, and self-sufficiency. The experience of Parisar Vikas, the initiative of involving waste pickers in the mainstream of the Solid Waste Management system highlights the reality that women from marginalized groups need not be passive victims of poverty and human rights violations; they can successfully participate in the struggle to survive, to gain control over economic, social and political resources, and lead a life of dignity.

Photo from SMS Facebook.

However due to community lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic, this invisible army of waste pickers are once again faced with more difficulties. Lockdown resulted in the closure of public life and reduction in consumerism, making collection of dry waste almost impossible which led to loss of livelihood putting them in a difficult situation as they survive only on daily wages. The waste pickers cannot afford gloves, masks, and other safety gear required for the hazardous work they do. With no access to waste as housing societies shut their gates to visitors and no malls, restaurants, shops, or tourist spots open, they are left with nothing. People too almost stopped segregating waste at source. As a result of this, all the non-segregated  waste collected from the city by Municipal corporations are brought directly to the dumping ground.  As most of the scrap business is in the hands of migrants who left for their hometowns for the lockdown, it was difficult for waste pickers to sell their  waste. Non availability of  local transport resulted in loss of livelihood for most of the daily wage earners in the cities. 

We realized that our immediate need is to help waste pickers get access to essential food  items so that they don’t sleep hungry. In the fourth week of March, we started fundraising to start providing assistance to waste pickers members. We reached out to potential donors and through our social media channels we received many donations. GAIA, along with other foundations, helped SMS to raise additional funds. As a result of this, SMS was able to provide 5,000 families of waste pickers with grain and other essential items, safety kits, and few medicines for five consecutive months starting March 2020. SMS is now starting training courses for women waste pickers in alternative skills. Once school gates open in October 2020, SMS is planning to distribute essential education items to the children of waste picker members. 

Photo courtesy of SMS.

In the beginning we considered switching to a coupon system by tying up with local vendors near communities to ease the burden on our community workers and making follow-up and monitoring of distribution easier, as we believe providing help in kind is wiser than cash donations, as money is usually not in the control of women and could lead to selective deprivation and abuse by husbands and other family members. 

Our Parisar Bhaginis live in diverse communities, among other vulnerable communities, thus, distribution for only our Parisar Bhaginis were met with questions as to why only them and not all of the needy families in the areas. Therefore, objections and issues of dispersal of crowd to maintain social distance arose in 1/2 communities, despite the presence of local police.  In spite of these difficulties in logistics, we monitored and completed phase one of distribution while maintaining safe distance thanks to our dedicated staff and volunteers. Zomato, A T E Chandra Foundation, Rotary Club of Queen’s Necklace, J M Baxi, and Tetra Pak are some of the organisations which donated relief kits to us. Our members were really very happy to receive this material as it was the first such kit given to them after 3 weeks of lock down.  

We also provided  safety gears to our volunteers along with sanitizers with the help of Cipla. HDFC, GAIA, PHF, and Galaxy are some of our donors who asked us to purchase relief kits for our members. 

While sourcing, packing and distributing relief kits, we faced numerous difficulties. But with the help of Stree Mukti Sanghatana activists and volunteers, Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh and Parisar Sakhi Vikas Sangh community workers and office bearers, we managed to reach out to waste pickers in Mumbai, Thane, Dombivli, Navi Mumbai, Panvel, Wardha, and Yavatmal. We are happy to share that with the help of donors we could reach out to over 40-42  communities, covering 4,000 families by providing relief kits to them in three distribution drives in three months. SMS-run Family Counseling Centers also distributed relief kits to women in distress. We were also fortunate to facilitate monetary assistance for 40 waste picker in extremely vulnerable condition with the generous donation of Give India. 

Photo from SMS Facebook.

We would also like to share that our members employed as Biogas plant and Composting Unit operators in BARC were given special transport arrangement to ferry them to work from their community. In TIFR and Makrand Society, the residents made arrangements for our members to stay in their premises and work there. 

Even now, ration shops are the only ones providing help as the Central Government has not provided other grains and pulses.   With the increasing number of cases in the city, the situation is nowhere near normal. We are afraid that the situation today is highly unsafe for waste pickers to work on the streets of Mumbai. Whatever efforts we had taken to encourage citizens to segregate their waste have now come undone as people are not segregating their waste and all the waste is ending up in the dumping ground. The municipal corporation is also not able to devote time to enforce waste management rules in earnest. We therefore feel that:

  1. Segregation should be strictly enforced, and hazardous waste such as used masks and gloves should always be segregated by the citizens. 
  2. Though there is a ban on plastic in our state, the amount of single use plastics has considerably increased, and some serious measures are essential with immediate effect.
  3. Municipal waste collection vehicles should take hazardous waste to dumping grounds. 
  4. Waste pickers should be formalised by the municipal corporations, and schemes and policies meant to guide their livelihood, protection, and well-being should be made a priority by the municipal corporation. 
  5. The municipal corporation should also revitalize the recycling industry to be able to support the informal economy that relies on selling their recyclable scraps to earn a living. 
  6. Waste pickers should be encouraged to take up green jobs, and the municipal corporation should take the lead in facilitating the creation and formalization of such jobs for them with the help of waste picker organisations
  7. Waste pickers should also be involved in sustainable businesses

We believe that the issue of waste deserves special attention in light of this pandemic. We wish that citizens take the environment and the conditions of waste pickers seriously.  Our volunteers and activists have also conducted webinars, and we have been writing about the need for creating Zero Waste areas to combat pollution through multiple forums. We are hopeful that we will create more awareness among citizens and government officials through our efforts in the days to come. 

Photo from SMS Facebook.

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GAIA is grateful for the contributions from SMS. This feature is made possible through the Zero Waste Cities project — an initiative coordinated by GAIA Asia Pacific and funded by the Plastic Solutions Fund (PSF). The views expressed in this feature do not necessarily reflect that of its funders.