Around the world, statistics on waste pickers are often unreliable because waste pickers are mobile, and often avoid official counts for fear of harassment from officials. Often it’s a family business; sometimes, children of waste pickers can’t go to school because they are working to help feed their families.
In 2007, when Nalini Shekar moved to Bengaluru from the San Francisco Bay Area to retire, most waste pickers made only $4-5 per day, though if they worked 13-14 hours a day, they could make the equivalent of $8 a day. A waste picker’s average day involved walking 8-19 miles, and bending around 1,000 times to pick up other people’s garbage. This work gave waste pickers a lot of skill and knowledge about how to recycle waste and the cost of different items of waste. In spite of this tremendous labor, however, housing remained out of reach for many waste pickers.
In the Bay Area, Shekar had worked on human trafficking and domestic violence issues and translated for the government during the infamous Lakireddy Bala case. Upon arriving in Bengaluru, she noticed significant discussion about waste management among middle class activists.
Many of the middle class policy makers in Bengaluru believed the waste pickers were beggars. There was zero social recognition of the work done by waste pickers, and municipal workers harassed them. The activists were pushing for decentralization of waste without considering the impact on the waste-picking community. When Shekar attended their meetings, she wondered what would happen to the 35,000 waste pickers working in the streets, if a form of activism that ignored the waste pickers were successful.
Shekar believed that since there were already 35,000 people who knew how to pick waste, this was an untapped pool of skill. Putting waste pickers to work formally would be easier than teaching someone with no familiarity with waste management to segregate different types of waste and recyclables.
This was not Shekar’s first foray into helping waste pickers. Before moving to the United States, she had worked in education in Pune. In 1997, she and her colleagues had observed that the children of waste-pickers were the most vulnerable population of children as far as education was concerned. They asked the waste pickers whether they would send their children to school if they had better job conditions. She and her colleagues started working with them in the outskirts of the slums.
During that time, Shekar learned the hierarchy of garbage disposal. At the bottom were waste pickers, usually Dalits. Shekar explained that, “The bottom contributes the most, but earns the least.” The itinerant buyers who bought scrap material that fetched more money in the market were a step up from waste pickers. Next were scrap dealers, who bought paper, plastic and metal junk. Higher up were wholesalers and stockists, who typically managed one kind of waste, which went to recycling units.
Shekar explained, “The higher up you go, the more profit and the fewer people. But if the waste picker walked away from the pyramid, the whole thing would fall down.” She noted that the recycling offices had a corporate grandeur that belied where the money was coming from. Hasirudala, or “green force” was born.
Although Shekar started Hasirudala in the 2010-2011 time frame, it was only formally registered in 2014. In the beginning, the organization did lots of policy work, but over the last year, most of the work has consisted of making sure people get jobs and keeping the operation running. The balance is 90% is grassroots work and 10% policy work. Today, there are 36 people on payroll including four in management.
Hasirudala works mainly with waste pickers, but also with itinerant buyers and some scrap dealers. Corruption has been the biggest obstacle for the organization in working with the contract system—the contract for garbage and the nexus between elected representatives and local contractors.
The organization has received death threats. Its vehicle got hijacked at one point because corrupt individuals didn’t believe it was big enough to fight back. Hasirudala went to court and obtained a judicial order specifically saying that it had to be protected—or else Karnataka would need to fold down the Bengaluru government.
A secondary obstacle has been the process of gaining the trust of the urban poor who have been cheated by so many.
Shekar and her colleagues kept returning to the slums until one woman, noticing how often they visited, encouraged the others to try it out. The waste pickers were astonished that Shekar made good on her plans, and that they eventually received ID cards.
As part of Hasirudala’s policy work, Shekar conducted a study that showed waste pickers managed to recycle 1,050 tonnes per day. If the city managed that on its own, it would spend $8.4 million per year. She started by negotiating with the city government, showing it how much waste was being recycled. She explained that if the waste pickers could do the same work for a living, they would be mitigating climate change by saving virgin material, and also saving money for the city.
Another early project involved working with Bengaluru’s Urban Development Department to integrate waste pickers in the solid waste management system of the city. Shekar argued, “If they’re bending 1,000 times per day, they are not beggars.”
She told the city government that it should give them official identity cards.
The government finally agreed. The card that Shekar pushed for is identical to the card that the mayor gets, with a logo of the local government and a signature of the commissioner. Shekar wanted integration to occur in a way that was consistent with the policies of the city.
Since mid-2011, more than 7.000 waste pickers have been given identity cards. The works with about 3,000-4,000 waste pickers closely, but is in touch with about 10,000 waste pickers. Now that they have identity cards, and the police don’t harass them, their status in the city has started to change.
Hasirudala also worked to move waste pickers from scavenging on the street to uniformed waste manager positions. The organization found that working in private spaces was a further opportunity for waste pickers to get integrated. The bulk generators pay the organization, which in turn pays the waste pickers. 11,000 households are covered.
Moreover, the organization pushed for segregation of waste into different categories such as wet waste, dry waste, sanitary waste and medical waste. Shekar explained to me that collecting different types of waste separately led to better processing and less harm to the environment. For example, sanitary waste that is placed in organic waste is not processed properly because it has plastic in it. Shekar explained that Bengaluru is currently the only city that collects medical waste separately.
When the organization started working, the amount of waste was almost 310 grams per day to landfill. But today, the average is 125 grams per day. Some apartments have taken the rules so seriously they have reduced the waste that goes to landfills to 75 grams per day. The environmental benefit of composting, bio-methanization and processing is enormous.
Remarkably, Hasirudala has pushed all of these significant reforms with limited financial investment thus far. Financial investors included Grass Root Communities, an NGO in Washington D.C. (previously Community Housing Foundation) and Indians for Collective Action. Jain University gave the group space to work. WEIGO, a UK organization that Shekar knew through her work in Pune, provided the group with office furniture. Shekar even invested her own money into it.
Hasirudala also has an IT partner, MindTree Limited, which developed a platform that helped Hasirudala scale up operations. Waste pickers get a handheld phone into which they input the weight of the waste collected and that goes to a program developed MindTree.
What does the future hold for an organization that has already accomplished so much? Shekar seems to have no intent to slow down. The organization aims to create 1,000 jobs this year. Shekar also hopes that Hasirudala will be able to acquire vehicles for waste pickers to use to pick up waste. Waste pickers would own this capital investment themselves. Shekar noted that she took what she learned, and the risk-taking, innovation mindset she developed as a Bay Area activist, and applied it to the work she does at Hasirudala.
Anita Felicelli is a writer and attorney who lives in the Bay Area. She is the author of the novel Sparks Off You and other books.