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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Law Report: India

Waste Pickers in India


Waste picking ranks lowest in the hierarchy of urban informal occupations and a large number of those employed in this occupation are women and children. Illiterate, unskilled persons, migrants, those lowest in the caste hierarchy and the poorest of the poor, predominantly work as waste pickers, as they are unable to find any other kind of employment. Currently, many of them collect waste from landfills dotting urban spaces.

Size and Significance

Estimates of the total number of waste pickers in the country are not easily available. However, some estimates, city wise have been recorded in some studies. In Ahmedabad city there are an estimated 30,000 waste pickers – a large proportion of them are women and children. In the state of Gujarat overall there are estimated to be over 100,000 waste pickers. Another study of Delhi estimates that the numbers of waste pickers in Delhi alone would be approximately 100,000. The total population of waste pickers in Pune is estimated to be 6,000, according to one study, of whom 72 per cent are women.

Working Conditions

Generally, there is no employer-employee relationship in this trade even though it is possible that some of the waste picking activity is organized by contractors. Waste pickers are self-employed workers with no formal legal relationship with the municipality or the recyclable traders. Waste-pickers suffer from occupation related musculo-skeletal problems, respiratory and gastro-intestinal ailments. They also face regular harassment and extortion from both the police and the municipal authorities. No social security benefits are available to workers in this sector. However, with the changing profile of the waste sector, particularly with the entry of e-waste which has deposits of precious metal, the actors in the recycling industry are fast evolving. Waste, now has recyclable material that is very valuable.

Law and Policy

The Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules passed in January 2000 (but came into effect in January 2004) under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India, after directions from the Hon. Supreme Court of India in the Almitra Patel case, mandating a comprehensive policy for collecting, handling and managing solid waste. The Rules direct the municipalities in 41 Class I municipalities to extend their mandatory responsibility (collection from common points) and undertake measures for door-step collection of waste and citizens education for source segregation.

Although the Rules do not make a specific mention of waste-pickers, they are explicit in offering a wide range of choices to the municipalities in the systems that they may want to adopt depending upon local conditions. 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 privatisation of garbage collection is cheaper and more efficient. Frequently these measures displace waste-pickers as the contracting party now has direct control over the waste and its disposal.

Organisation and Voice

Efforts on in several parts of the country, notably Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, to unionise the workers into cooperatives and simultaneously introduce a system whereby waste pickers collect at source recyclable waste from houses, institutions, shops and establishments. Groups working with waste pickers have been demanding that the waste pickers be integrated into the door to door collection scheme so that it guarantees their access to scrap; improve their working conditions; improve their earnings; and transform the status of the occupation from scavenging to service provision.