Strengthening Livelihoods and Services for Waste Pickers in Pune


Lakshmi Narayanan is a Co-Founder of SWaCH.

Sia Nowrojee is Program Director of the 3D Program for Girls and Women.

It’s a tough life for women. And worse for us, poor Dalit women who are looked down upon for handling the city's waste. My name is Pinky. I am a waste picker in Pune. I collect and sort through garbage, picking out glass, metal and paper to sell to wholesalers for a meagre income. I work up to 10 hours a day, walking for more than five, with little access to shelter or toilets. I face harassment and am at risk of being bitten by dogs on the street. I suffer from skin and digestive ailments, and my body aches every day. It’s hard work with significant risks and little security. But I draw solidarity from other waste pickers and our organizations, Kagad, Kach, Patra Kashtakari Panchayat and SWaCH, which have secured better work conditions and higher earnings, and most importantly, dignity and respect for us as service providers, whose environmental contributions are now recognized.

Over 75% of the waste pickers in the city of Pune are women. Their economic, social and environmental contributions to the city are impressive – they collect over 600 tons of waste each day, 90 tons of which is diverted from landfills and recycled, and up to 8 tons is composted daily. They also generate much-needed income to support their families and many are the sole breadwinners.

Photo taken by Amit Thavraj, 2011. Used with permission from SWaCH.

To acknowledge the contributions of waste pickers and protect their livelihoods, they were organized into a trade union (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat), which negotiated a formalized agreement with the Pune Municipal Corporation to create the SWaCH cooperative – India’s first wholly-owned cooperative of self-employed waste collectors providing front end waste management services. Through SWACH, waste pickers provide reliable, reasonably priced and accountable garbage collection and sorting services to Pune residents. The agreement is rooted in the PMC’s rich legacy of innovation in solid waste management (SWM). The only city with a pro-poor, public-private partnership providing waste management services, Pune has high rates of source segregation of waste, and a large number of decentralized biomethanation plants in each ward and compost units across the city.

Despite this, the livelihoods of waste pickers are far from secure. Their income is vulnerable to several risks, including uncertain and indeterminate access to scrap due to many contesting contenders; the fluctuating prices of scrap; and the vagaries of nature that can lead to spontaneous fires of scrap or complete contamination due to rain water. Additionally, waste pickers and their families have limited knowledge of and access to the range of social services and benefits they are entitled to.

Photo taken by SWaCH, 2016. Used with permission from SWaCH.

The 3D Program for Girls and Women is working with SWaCH to sustain and enhance the livelihoods of waste pickers in Pune, and increase their access to benefits and programs offered by the government and the PMC. Through the partnership with SWACH, the 3D Program is facilitating the development of an environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive, participatory, decentralized and economically efficient public-private SWM platform that strengthens the existing PMC-SWaCH partnership and meets statutory requirements. This involves engaging government and municipal officials, private sector innovators and civil society actors, including waste pickers themselves, to identify best and equitable practice in finance, management and administrative SWM systems in India and beyond. The goal reflects SWaCH’s mission to engage an entrepreneurial workforce of waste pickers into an efficient, responsive and accountable organization and work in partnership with the municipal system to transform SWM in Pune – and is congruent with the intent of the 3D Program.

To ensure waste pickers and their families receive good quality social programs and entitlements across sector, with support of the 3D Program, SWaCH is mapping existing benefits and barriers to access, and is working to strengthen existing programs to enhance financial and social inclusion, health and education; create new programs; and engage civil society and the private sector to fill gaps. With generous support from a private sector philanthropist, leveraged by the 3D Program, SWaCH is also building and maintaining safe, attractive material recovery facilities that provide shelter from the elements, on-site toilets and drinking water.

The innovative Materials Recovery Center. Photo taken by Amit Rai, 2016. Used with permission from SWaCH.

Bringing together, or converging, different stakeholders across sectors, can lead to endless possibilities to better serve vulnerable girls and women. Each stakeholder brings their own resources, expertise and commitment to the table. By facilitating the development of a shared vision and jointly defined targets, the 3D Program is committed to ensuring that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, with the end-result being innovative and efficient responses, with multiple benefits for girls and women.

Girls and women are best served when traditional boundaries are crossed, so that stakeholders – including girls and women themselves – can come together to maximize their ideas and resources to get things done,” said Geeta Rao Gupta, Founder and Executive Director of the 3D Program, ”Our partnership with SWaCH enables us to reach some of the most vulnerable women and their families in Pune, leverage the resources and goodwill of the private sector, and engage and strengthen outcomes for municipal services. It’s really a win-win situation.”

March 2018

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