Waste Pickers in India

Introduction

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.

Wages

The general perception is that it is difficult to fix a minimum wage for waste pickers because this can be done only by the Labour Department and not the municipalities. According to one view, we must first define the categories of waste and then fix the rates for each category. Another suggestion is that the payment can be decided on the basis of the area from which the waste is being collected. For instance, in Delhi, the payment by individual households would be the highest in the posh Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (LBZ), and the money consequently collected could be passed on to ragpickers’ associations, who would then distribute it among the workers.

The proponents of wage fixation argue that wages should be preferred over rates because it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that all workers get basic minimum wages for their work. The fixation of rates cannot ensure equity of wages due to the involvement of powerful people and intermediaries in the sector. The proponents of rate fixation, on the other hand, claim that wage fixation
as a demand is not feasible because it would be tantamount to asking for total employment for the waste collector, which is half the battle lost as the main thrust of the policy is not employment but the facilitation of a decentralized, integrated and sustainable system of solid waste management.

For more information, see Background Note on Waste Pickers.

Law and Policies

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.

See full text of Law and Policies.

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.

Platform of Demands

The challenge before the waste pickers is to intervene in the development of waste related polices to ensure their ‘voice’ and ‘representation’. They need to shape a policy that takes into account the livelihood and survival needs of this section of informal workers and which provides for decent work within this sector. It is also important that this intervention emphasize the need for integration of traditional structures of waste picking and management with the new technologies and business models. Thus appropriate use of technology needs to be emphasized in shaping the policy for waste management in the country. More specifically, some of their demands include:

a) There is no clear policy for waste pickers or even efforts to legislate to protect the rights of the waste pickers, in India.

b) The right to waste and access to waste, need to be envisaged in a holistic solid waste management system that gives due recognition and protection to the waste picker.

c) An integrated waste management system, in which segregation at source enables better management of waste and provides employment with better working conditions to waste pickers, needs to be mandated by law for all local bodies across the country.

The draft policy prepared by the WIEGO India pilot project, for the alliance of waste picker organisations in India, is based on such an approach. (Draft Policy)

For a detailed discussion, see Concept Note and Report of Consultation with MBOs in the sector.