Wake Up Clean Up Bengaluru: A day in the life of a waste picker

Waste pickers like Gowriamma are the city’s silent environmentalists, who work with our rubbish to extract resources and recycle them.


Gowriamma smiles at me as we run into each other at Freedom Park. We met the previous day when I helped her find the Daily Bread stall and chatted about her job at the expo. It is not the cakes or iced tea that brings Gowriamma to Daily Bread four times a day, but the cardboard boxes, coffee cups and wrappers discarded by the stall’s customers. I ask her in my broken kannada-cum-tamil mix about her work, and she nods enthusiastically and tells me that the waste here is of good quality, but that she wishes the segregation were a little better (not an unreasonable want given that we were at a waste management expo!). She finds boxes in the wet waste bin and half eaten sandwiches in the dry waste bin. She nevertheless goes through both bins with care, and retrieves every scrap of dry waste from them. She then carries whatever she has collected to the Dry Waste Collection Center in Freedom Park, where she sorts the waste into different categories.

Waste segregation demo at the DWCC stall in Wake Up Clean Up Bengaluru ’13, Freedom Park.

The sisters, Gowriamma and Annamma, were in charge of retrieving the dry waste produced during the 8 day Wake up Clean up expo held at Freedom Park last week. Gowriamma and waste pickers like her are the city’s silent environmentalists, who work with our rubbish to extract resources and recycle them. Bangalore is estimated to have 15,000 to 20,000 waste pickers, waste sorters, itinerant buyers and recyclers, who together constitute the city’s informal recycling sector that diverts around 600-700 tons of waste from landfills every day, saving the city municipality a minimum of 13 lakhs/day. The informal sector is by far the biggest contingent of waste managers in the city of Bangalore.

Working with waste in India is not an easy job. In addition to low incomes, insecure livelihoods, poor working conditions and exposure to pathogens, waste pickers deal with social stigma and are, often, divorced from mainstream society. Waste work has long been considered ‘dirty work’ in India, and is predominantly carried out by women and members of Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes. Waste pickers are suspected of crimes and restricted from entering many spaces. They face harassment from the police and, often, have to pay ‘bribes’ to pick up our waste from public sites. The economic, social and environmental value of their work is barely acknowledged either by citizens or policy-makers. As a matter of fact, waste pickers are often equated with beggars, and their labor and skills remain invisible to most.

Gowriamma and her sister pick waste in Kamakshipalya. In 2011, they were enumerated as part of an exercise conducted by the BBMP, under direction from the Lok Adalat, and issued cards that identify them as registered waste pickers. These ID cards legitimize their waste picking activities, and make them less vulnerable to persecution by the police or the public. This initiative was driven by Hasiru Dala, a newly-formed cooperative of waste pickers that works towards securing waste pickers’ livelihoods, improving their working conditions and enabling their access to social security benefits.

Gowriamma and Annamma are both Hasiru Dala members today, and through the organization, they hope to move from working on the street to becoming legitimate and responsible members of the city’s emerging waste management systems. They are going through a training program for scrap dealers organized by Hasiru Dala, which focuses on developing the skills they need to run a dry waste collection center. The program teaches them how to deliver reliable service, engage with customers and maintain accounts. They eventually hope to operate one of the city’s 198 dry waste collection centers, preferably in Kamakshipalya.

For Gowriamma, her livelihood has long depended on the city’s trash and the city has directly benefited from her labor and skills. She knows waste intimately, and works with it whether it is clean or dirty, beautiful or ugly. It is no news to her that there is wealth in waste, though for her, wealth is an unfamiliar concept. She looks around Freedom Park with curiosity and takes in all the fanfare and excitement, but remains focused on her task. She knows her existence depends on her ability to pick, sort and sell waste effectively, and she soldiers on, trying to make the best of the opportunities she gets.

The informal waste sector has years of experience and extensive expertise in extracting recyclables from waste, segregating and aggregating it, and consequently diverting waste from landfills. Inclusive policy-making that acknowledges and utilizes the expertise of this sector can go a long way in developing resilient and efficient waste management systems, while also protecting the livelihoods of the thousands like Gowriamma who live off what we call ‘garbage’.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manisha Anantharaman is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, but spends most of her time following garbage and bicycles in Bangalore. Her research looks at middle class environmental politics in the city, with a focus on waste management and transportation. In a past life she used to study plants and microbes, and occasionally longs for those simpler days. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manisha Anantharaman is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, but spends most of her time following garbage and bicycles in Bangalore. Her research looks at middle class environmental politics in the city, with a focus on waste management and transportation. In a past life she used to study plants and microbes, and occasionally longs for those simpler days. more

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