The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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Written by AIKMM


Country India

October 15, 2013

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AIKMM logo

We request you to participate in the dialogue and enrich it with your expert views on the matter.

There is urgent need to assess the measures that the government has taken over the past decade to improve waste management in the country. Millions of dollars have been spent in large scale, centralised technochratic solutions with little impact or improvement in levels of recycling. The Draft MSW Rules, 2013, do nothing to reform the situation. Instead, they seek to continue with the status quo and only increase the already thriving presence of waste to energy plants across the country. Is this the answer to our waste management woes? A consultation of concerned stakeholders seeks to address this question.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, has recently come out with the Draft Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2013 (MSW Rules). These rules would supersede the earlier MSW Rules, 2000 and have huge implications for the way waste is managed in cities across India. It is important to draw attention to the fact that these rules completely lack focus on the lives and livelihoods of millions of workers, both formal and informal, who have been involved in waste management. It also unclear whether they will be able to address the problems of pollution control.

Millions of workers are informally involved in collecting, sorting, recycling and selling waste material that someone else has thrown away by declaring it as garbage. Vital actors in the economy, these workers work hard to reduce carbon emission and save energy spent in handling the waste. They also contribute towards saving public money and provide widespread discernible and indiscernible benefit to our society, municipalities and the environment.

Ironically however, they face harsh working conditions, often low social status, deplorable living conditions and no support from the government. Despite the fact that waste collectors recycle about 20 percent of the city’s waste saving the municipalities millions of rupees every year, they are not given any recognition in legislation, criminalized by the administration and ignored by society. They work without any direct payment, are not part of the public solid waste management systems, are socially invisible and seldom reported in official statistics.

The 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle) is the most accepted universal recommendation to save the environment. These are the only workers who help our society be on track to follow these recommendations.

Waste picking is responsive to the market for recyclables and is often a family enterprise. While it appears to be chaotic work, it is actually highly organized. In some cities, most waste pickers are migrants and rejected by the global economic processes. This puts them in a more vulnerable condition with no legal entitlements despite the fact that they are “The real, Invisible Environmentalists”.

On one hand, waste pickers or the informal ‘waste managers’ remain invisible to policy makers. On the other hand, the problem of waste management continues to grow. In its 2009-10, Annual Report the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) estimated that approximately 55 million tons of MSW are generated in urban areas of India annually. It is estimated that the amount of waste generated in India will increase at a rate of approximately 1 – 1.33% annually. The problem will thus sustain and grow if adequate measures are not taken.

India is one of the fastest growing economies with 6 to 9% GDP growth per year but despite these achievements and claims of rapid economic development, the disparity between rich and poor is widening, and this can be seen across the country– from large urban areas to small rural ones. According to ILO, despite playing such an important role for the society and environment, waste Pickers also fall under the 77% of the population who earn less than Rs. 20 every day because they are not authorized to collect the waste material from the source i.e.; homes, factorise, offices etc. Due to lack of recognition and authorization, waste pickers suffer from atrocities by Resident Welfare Associations, Policemen, Residents, Municipal Authority etc. With little scope of earning, they are entangled in the web of bribery.

In spite of their significant role in protecting our environment and saving resources for the economy, the government has never noticed them as an important economic sector but merely mentioned their name (Waste Picker) in legislations and reports.

In the new Draft MSW Rules, 2013 (The Gazette of India REGD.NO.D.L-33004/99, Page no. 26- Point no-9 (k) Management of Municipal Solid waste), Waste pickers have been mentioned as a possible option for collection of waste. Yet, there is no mechanism mentioned for their authorisation and thus hardly any waste picker has been authorized by government agencies. The roles, responsibility, and rights of the Waste Pickers have also not been mentioned in the draft Gazette. Yet the waste pickers have historically been demanding that they be given the right to collect, segregate. sort, grade and sell off recyclable materials locally. This would lead to much greater environmental preservation than the centralised model being followed by municipalities currently.

This gazette has also promoted a forged and dangerous idea of waste to energy, in spite of knowing that in India it is not viable or sustainable to generate energy from Municipal Solid Waste. This is because of the properties of waste in India compared to developed countries where this is prevalent. A recent study by Ellis Buruss shows that WTE incinerators actually waste more energy than they produce In 2012, an operational energy plant was set up in Okhla, Delhi to produce electricity. However, even more than one and half years on, this plant has not able to produce one single unit of Electricity but continues to release toxic pollutants. On the other aspects, it is proved that in an area where waste to energy plant would run there is a higher risk of disease likes Cancer and Impotence in Women.

Given the situation, it is of utmost importance that there should be dialogue between stakeholders to obtain different opinions on the Rules. It has been 13 years since the earlier Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, were framed, and approved by the MoEF. Various changes have taken place since then in the structure and format of waste management, its governance, and economic and financial aspects. However, until date, there has been no systematic review of these changes and the measures that have been taken to manage urban solid waste. It is time to carry out such a review. In order to make the new Rules valuable for society, they must reflect this new learning instead of simply being a slightly amended version of the existing rules.

It is for this reason that several concerned people and organisations have decided to jointly host a dialogue of various stakeholders. The dialogue would help thresh out the issues so that the new Rules may lay the foundation for much more sustainable, inclusive, and holistic waste management system in our cities.