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New Dehli India

City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker

A Conversation With: Akbar and Tajudin, waste pickers from Seemapuri (Delhi), both members of the waste pickers union AIKMM, and with Shashi Bhushan Pandit, General Secretary, AIKMM (

Formal Waste Management System

Delhi is at the forefront of what appears to be the plan for urban solid waste management in the cities of developing countries across the world: first the privatization of the system, second the incineration of waste. In the official system, waste from the households is supposed to be disposed by the citizens themselves at the transfer stations (also called dalaos, kattas, community bins or dustbins). From there it is collected, more or less regularly, and transported by trucks to the landfills (Ghazipur, Bhalaswa and Tulakabad). Unauthorized colonies and slums are often not served. Waste management is among the major expenditures for local bodies, around 20 per cent of the total municipal budget for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

Informal Recycling Sector

In Delhi there are about 200,000 waste pickers. Mostly migrants from rural areas, often landless, these urban poor workers have engaged in the informal recycling sector as a survival strategy. They simply often do not have any employment alternatives. Waste pickers collect waste at different stages of the formal waste management chain, including from households, offices, shops, streets, transfer stations and landfills. They can collect it by foot, cycle or tricycle (locally called cycle-thela). Most recyclable materials are directly collected from the housesholds, by itinerant waste buyers (thiawalas) and door-to-door waste collectors. Most households keep segregated the good quality recyclable materials, like folded newspapers, glass bottles and metals, which are then sold to the itinerant waste buyers. And the rest of the mixed waste is collected on a daily basis by door-to-door waste collectors with a bulk bag on a tricycle. Once the bag on the vehicle is full, it is transported to the transfer station. The first segregation takes place between non-recyclables (mainly organic and inert materials) and recyclables (mainly plastic and paper). The first are disposed at the transfer station, while the second are loaded again in the tricycle. The recyclables materials are then transferred to the waste collectors community (hundreds of recycling clusters around Delhi where the waste-collectors live, carry out the segregation and store the recyclable materials) where a second segregation takes place. The materials can be divided from a minimum of 5 to more than 15 categories, including different types of plastic, paper, metals and rubber. The segregated materials are then weighed and sold to a junk dealer (called kabaari). On an average, a waste-collector can recycle up to 100 kg per day, and earn up to Rs.10,000 (US $181) from waste picking a month. The junk dealer stores the materials and once a minimum quantity is reached (i.e. two or three tons), it is sold to a bigger junk dealer. Along this chain, before the materials actually reach the recycling industry, further segregation take place in more and more specialized intermediaries, up to “one item” junk dealers. Looking from an employment perspective, this structure can be described as a pyramid, with the waste-collectors at the bottom, the junk dealers and segregators in the middle and the recycling industry at the top. The informal recycling sector provides various benefits: a cleaning service free of cost for society, employment for urban poor workers, and a reduction of the pressure on the environment due to high recycling rates.

Waste Picker Organization

In the 1990s, the waste-collectors organizations focused on how to improve their working and living conditions by demanding social and legal recognition of their significant contributions to society and the environment. However, in the last decade the sector has seen the emergence of serious threats to its mere existence. By ignoring the informal recycling sector, the public authorities have failed to design waste management policies that could formalize (and reinforce) its contributions, apart from improving waste pickers' conditions. Instead, they have opted for untested strategies that directly compete with them, such as privatization and waste-to-energy plants, particularly in their vertical integrated form from door-to-door collection to final disposal. Nowadays the actual priority of the informal recycling sector is simply not to lose access to the waste resources on which livelihoods depend. Local waste pickers’ organizations (like the AIKMM, Chintan and Safai Sena) actively fight on the ground against these threats.

Current Central Issues

The local public bodies have declared Delhi to be under a waste crisis (8,000 tons per day): waste is lying everywhere, existing landfills are overwhelmed and new locations are difficult to find. Officially, the crisis is a management failure, mainly a technical problem. So, in response to the local bodies' inefficiency, the doors have been opened for the private companies to enter the sector and solve the problems. Since 2005, contracts have been granted to private companies first for collection and transportation, second for waste-to-energy incinerators at three plants. Simultaneously, a socio-environmental conflict has emerged: Delhi Waste Wars. Local public bodies intend to first solve the collection failure by privatizing, and second, they intend to burn the waste to reduce its volume (and therefore the need for new landfills). Waste recycling workers are concerned about the potential loss of their livelihood, which depends on the access to recyclable materials. Local residents are worried about the toxic emissions from the incineration plants and their consequences to health. Environmentalists wants to avoid pollution and ensure the highest possible recycling rates. Residents, workers and environmentalists, sometimes allied, have opposed the official policies and propose alternatives, like decentralized waste management. In other words, the different actors engage in a contentious process deploying different valuation languages (livelihood, cleanliness, efficiency, beautifulness, environment) to impose their representation of reality and solutions.