Beyond Profit, an Indian magazine focused on social enterprise, discusses the problems of waste management in Indian municipalities. The article highlights the City of Pune as an example of integrating ragpickers, who are largely part of the informal economy, into the city’s waste management system. This led to the creation of SWaCH, India’s first cooperative for self-employed ragpickers and waste collectors, which has entered into a public-private partnership with the City of Pune. The partnership will enable the City of Pune to provide door-to-door waste collection and sorting services to its residents. The initiative has helped “fill the gap between household and municipal waste collection” and offered the waste collectors livelihoods opportunities.

India’s growing middle class has access to more goods, services and products than ever before. This new consumerism heaped atop rapid urbanization has left municipalities with an issue much less glamorous than the new malls, grocery stores and mega-shops dotting the cities. Massive solid waste accumulation has become an overwhelming environmental, health and aesthetic hazard for urban areas. Mumbai, for example, generates nearly 7,025 tons of waste on a daily basis, according to the Bombay Csommunity Public Trust. Yet, as the study points out, this trash is from officially recognized areas of the city and likely leaves out thousands more tons from informal slums.
Developing countries often spend 20-50% of their municipal budgets on waste management, although only 50% of city residents—and often much less—are usually covered. As a result of this lack of infrastructure, a large informal ragpicking and recycling industry has grown among the urban poor. Ragpickers—mostly women—wade through piles of unwanted goods to salvage scraps that can be sold off to earn a daily living. A 2007 New York Times article identified more than 300,000 ragpickers in Delhi alone; a recent Mint article claimed the capital city has 80,000 ragpickers. This discrepancy can likely be attributed to the invisibility with which they work. “More than 95 percent of New Delhi has no formal system of house-to-house garbage collection,” says the NYT article, “so it falls to the city’s ragpickers, one of India’s poorest and most marginalized groups, to provide this basic service for fellow citizens. They are not paid by the state for their work, relying instead on donations from the communities they serve, and on meager profits from the sale of discarded items.”
While these informal garbage collectors have been quietly servicing the needs of urban residents, Delhi’s municipal government made a decision last month to move forward with a contract to hand over the city’s solid waste management to private firms, leaving the ragpickers without a livelihood. In essence, the municipality has opted to further marginalize its vulnerable—not to mention a group that has been recycling the minutiae of garbage long before the “green” revolution became popular—rather than integrating these seasoned waste collectors into its formal system. “The integration of waste-pickers into the doorstep collection of garbage is one of the methods that will guarantee their access to scrap; improve their working conditions; improve their earnings; and transform the status of the occupation from scavenging to service provision,” says Poornima Chikarmane and Laxmi Narayan in their case study, “Organizing the Unorganized.” The move by Delhi perhaps represents the municipality’s reluctance to invest in building the organizational structures and multi-organizational synergies necessary for the success of this type of partnership with the poor. Officials, however, claim the partnership would be unfeasible and costs towards minimum-wage salaries for the city’s ragpickers would amount to INR15 lakh a day (US$1.5m), according to the Mint article. They argue that privatizing the job will not only save money, but will also centralize operations, thereby making waste management more efficient and accountable.
Delhi went forth with the privatization even though India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests created a policy, the Municipal Solid Waste Handling Rules, which mandated municipalities to move from collection at common points to door-to-door collection of waste and education for citizens to segregate their trash at source. The policy framework, in essence, opened up opportunities for local governments to potentially adopt a wide range of systems. “Caught between the compliance criteria for collection and budgetary constraints, municipalities have been experimenting with different methods with varying degrees of success. Contracting out the system of doorstep garbage collection, partly or fully, to both local and multinational operators is the most popular because there is a strong lobby that believes that privatization of garbage collection is cheaper and more efficient,” report Chikarmane and Narayan.
 The city of Pune, however, has proven that incorporating the ragpickers into the city’s waste management can be both socially responsible and economically viable. SWaCH, a social enterprise focused on solid waste collection and handling, is India’s first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed ragpickers/waste collectors. In 2007, SWaCH entered into a public-private partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) to provide door-to-door waste management services to 200,000 Pune households. A strong wastepickers union, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP)—the focus of Chikarmane and Narayan’s case study—has existed in Pune since 1993 after it was established during a convention of ragpickers. Since its inception nearly 20 years ago, the union has made significant strides in bettering the lives and working conditions of its members, including gaining identity cards and recognition of their contribution to the municipality’s solid waste management practices. Additionally, KKPKP proved that the ragpickers’ work saved Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporations (PCMC) several crores in waste handling costs.
The PMC authorized the partnership after a pilot project was launched that showed the formalizing of ragpickers into the municipality’s system effectively fills the gap between the household and the municipal waste collection service. “It also helped dispel myths of working with the urban poor and showed that ragpickers/waste collectors are punctual, regular, efficient, honest and cordial,” according to SWaCH. Furthermore, it showed that the residents of Pune—who would now pay the ragpickers rather than them relying on donations—would be willing to pay for the services. The model basically gave SWaCH the role of providing management, operations and personnel; PMC took on the duty of providing infrastructure by paying INR14 (US$.30) per household per month for one year, after which it reduces to zero; and the residents’ agreed to funding a financially and environmentally sustainable model by paying a user fee.
SWaCH has also helped the city of Pune to be forward-thinking in its approach to waste management, adopting the notion that the 21st century has moved from “waste management”—removing waste while minimizing environmental and health hazards—to the new notion of “resource management”—working towards zero waste by employing new tactics and technologies to promote the “3 R’s”: reduce, reuse, recycle. To this end, SWaCH is focused on creating decentralized eco-hubs to process organic waste, effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating a new revenue stream. The city is part of UNESCAP’s pilot Integrated Resource Recovery Centers, which are based on Waste Concern’s successful model in Bangladesh, that focus on three sources of income: sale of recyclables, sale of compost and waste-collection fee. Ragpickers will also gain training in recycling various materials, including growing forms of new trash such as e-waste, through Waste Concern’s training models.
The city of Pune has demonstrated the successful integration of marginalized groups and the willingness of the municipality to “tap into the grass-roots abilities of the poor.” “Such growth can more substantially improve the lives of the rag pickers and can at the same time assist cities to move to greener and more sustainable futures,” write Hemalata C. Dandekar and Sulakshana Mahajan in a paper “Alleviating Poverty and Greening the City: Women Ragpickers of Mumbai.” SWaCH attributes its success to a strong pre-existing wastepickers union and sees a need for more unionization in other cities to move forward with this model elsewhere. A “strange paradox” has occurred in India, says SWaCH, where, despite a policy framework that opens up possibilities for the integration of wastepickers, few NGOs have initiated the organization of wastepickers to “explore the possibilities that exist in a favorable policy environment.” The time is ripe for cities to think more innovatively about managing waste, recovering resources from the waste to increase profits while reducing harmful emissions and incorporating an existing workforce of knowledgeable waste collectors whose skills can be leveraged towards a cleaner and greener future.
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.