City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker
A Conversation With: Sushila Sable, President, Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangha (a federation affiliated with Stree Muk Sanghatana) and member of Stree Mukti Sanghatana; and Jyoti Mhapsekar, President and founder of Stree Mukti Sanghatana in Mumbai, India. Translator: Dhanashree
Personal Story: SushilaIn 1972, when Sushila was 10 years old, a drought in her home region of Marathwada forced her family and many other farm workers to migrate to Mumbai where they found work as waste pickers. Sushila came into contact with Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS), a women’s organization that works for the benefit of waste pickers and their families, while SMS was completing surveys about waste picking in her slum. “Nobody ever came to ask about our work, so we were happy to talk with them,” says Sushila. Through a connection with SMS, in 1998 Sushila joined a self-help savings group of 10 women from her slum. In the beginning, each of the women put Rs.50 per month into their collective pot. To obtain a bank account to hold their savings, they had to learn to sign their names and acquire a letter of support from SMS. To provide further support, SMS offered a financial and leadership training course once a week for 16 weeks. The courses provided trainings on government schemes, child care techniques, nutrition, basic sanitation, and girls’ education and marriage age. During the course, Sushila found that she had a gift for public speaking and began to gain confidence in her ability to lead a group. Sushila also completed training in composting and gardening and started working for waste management projects initiated by SMS. In 2004, SMS facilitated a microfinance federation of Self Help Groups called Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh (PBVS) and Sushila became President. She stopped her other work in order to work full time for PBVS. She was completely illiterate in 2004, but she has gradually learned. PBVS also gives financial assistance for education, help to build houses, assists with health problems etc., though the majority off financial assistance is taken out for marriage expenses. Sushila hopes to grow the organization and continue to help more waste pickers acquire the assistance they need. The federation runs two canteens and also runs five scrap shops through its members. It also collects post consumer Tetra Pak cartons and sends them for recycling.
Personal Story: JyotiJyoti Mhapsekar is one of the founder members of SMS, a feminist organization established in 1975. In addition to many other activities like theatre, family counselling centers, a day care centre, adolescent programmes and large scale campaigns for women’s rights, SMS started working for waste picker women in 1998. Jyoti opted for voluntary retirement early from her job to begin working full time at SMS. Because she and the other middle class women who were SMS volunteers had no experience working with the informal sector or with waste, it took time to understand the conditions of the dumpsite and how to address the real needs of the women they wanted to work for.
Official Waste Management SystemThe Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) is the body in charge of waste management in the city. Until two years ago, Mumbai had a single stream waste system. All the waste went to a landfill, (which, according to Jyoti, is actually just a dumping ground). Wealthier western suburbs decided they did not want waste in their area, so the city’s waste was all taken to eastern suburbs, where there are more slums. A private company was hired to do mixed composting of the waste in the deonar dumping ground and then cap the 65-acres out of 200 acres site. Officially, both the city workers and private contractors manage the waste. There are a few recycling programmes sponsored by the local authority, including a programme in which the city has given SMS five vehicles and five sheds to collect and sort recyclables. There are two biogas plants constructed by SMS for MCGM. Medical waste is incinerated, though there are no plans to do a larger scale incineration. There is a very ambitious biomethanation programme.
Informal Recycling SystemIn Mumbai, there are about 15,000 waste pickers, earning around Rs. 150-200 (US $2.71-3.62) per day. The pay is inconsistent and may be above or below basic subsistence level on any given day. Waste pickers collect recyclables door to door, at transfer stations, on the streets, and from landfills. There is a limited partnership between waste picking groups and the municipality, the federation of waste pickers affiliated with SMS (PBVS), contracts with the city to collect recyclables and has been given vehicles and sorting sheds. Sorting of recyclables is done on the roadside, unless a waste picker has access to a PBVS shed. However, waste pickers who are not members of PBVS do not get a bonus when they sell recyclables at the sheds. There are seven to eight categories of plastic that are recyclable, and four or five kinds of paper. If women do not have time or space to segregate, they sell mixed recyclables at a lower price. The waste is transported on foot in large bags, in small vehicles called Tempos, and in handcarts.
Waste Picker OrganizationThere are four waste-picker groups in Mumbai: 1) FORCE (~200 members), of which two members trained under SMS as staff formed a separate organization as they wanted to incorporate men into the group; 2) Apnalaya (~500 members), which is an NGO that works only at the dumping ground; 3) AAKAR (~2,000 members), which has self-help groups and cooperatives that work with women in Mumbai’s western suburbs; and SMS (~3,000 members), which uses a self-help model, as well as cooperatives and a federation to work with women in Mumbai’s Eastern suburbs. After a survey, SMS gained a better understanding of the harsh conditions at dumpsites where women worked and then began to investigate alternate means of income generation. They first looked into composting as a way to derive value from organic waste. In 2001, SMS began to teach waste pickers methods of composting. Then, in 2002, SMS bought technology about producing biogas from organic waste using a biodigester. Using a particular biodigester technology, (Nisargruna of B.A.R.C.) organic waste is decomposed to create fertilizer and methane, which can be used for cooking fuel or to generate electricity. The physical structure of the biogas plants tended to be large, crude and intimidating to the women, so they had a limited role in biogas production. However, over the years, the plants were modified to be more accessible to women and women were trained to operate the plants themselves. SMS still offers a variety of programmes to waste pickers – from education, health and advocacy to promoting the arts. SMS also does a lot of work on ancillary programmes. For example, SMS raises money to keep girls in school, as education for girls is almost free at the municipal schools until 7th standard and girls often drop out after that. SMS also operates a health center for the families of waste pickers. However, SMS is working hard to expand its zero-waste concept through composting and the use of biogas plants operated by SMS members in Mumbai and the surrounding cities Thane, Navi Mumbai, & Dombivli. SMS has also initiated 10 cooperatives (25-50 members in each ) to secure waste management contracts with the housing and Office Complexes.
Current Central IssuesMCGM is not interested in promoting much integration of informal waste pickers into the formal waste management system of Mumbai. SMS therefore approached citizen groups (ALM)to create a parallel system in which waste pickers can operate legally and avoid some of the risk of working at a dumpsite. Jyoti wants to work with private institutions to help them achieve zero waste through composting, biogas generation and recycling. SMS would also like to see legal recognition of waste pickers, though they have already given identity cards to members. Further, since their major focus is on the promotion of women, SMS wants to continue to educate its members to keep girl children in school, end child labour, and ensure that girls are at least 18 years old when they marry. Poverty is the biggest threat to all waste pickers. They suffer through harsh conditions in all aspects of their work. For example, in the slums around the dumping ground, where many waste pickers live, there are gangs and other violence. Improving the lives of waste pickers means helping them come out of extreme poverty.