India: Fuelling a Rags to Riches Story

The waste pickers of Latur, Maharashtra, have not only managed to change their lives for the better, but have also been instrumental in the city winning the prestigious Sant Gadge Baba Maharaj Award. The award recognises good sanitation practices in the state – with prize money of US $70,000 or approximately Rs 30,00,000.

“Earlier we used to earn around Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,000 (US$1=Rs39.3) per month. We mostly lived off leftovers found in the garbage dumps and our children worked as rag/waste pickers. Things are very different now. We manage to earn around Rs 3,000 per month and have savings as well. Our children go to school and we can dream of a better life for them. We don’t want our children to do this work,” says middle-aged Lata Bai, who has been a waste picker for the past 10 years.

Lata Bai is one of the 183 waste pickers whose lives have been transformed. When Latur’s garbage collection system was all set to be privatised in 2005; the waste pickers decided to form an association. As a result, instead of being rendered jobless, they were formalised into a group.

It was, in fact, the Chikunguniya epidemic, which had hit the city in 2003-04, that compelled the local administration to do something about the dismal garbage disposal system. “Latur was one of the biggest breeding grounds of Chikunguniya. So, we had to do something. After a survey of Tirupati (a prominent pilgrimage centre in Tamil Nadu), which gets around 700,000 visitors everyday but still remains garbage-free, we decided to implement a door-to-door collection of garbage in the entire city of Latur. We also decided not to spend any money on garbage collection – households would pay the monthly Rs 20 towards the collection of garbage,” explains Deepak Kasar, the then Municipal Commissioner, Latur.

The project is the brainchild of the local administration and ACDI/VOCA, a US-based voluntary non-profit organisation under the Growth-Oriented Micro-Enterprise Development Project (GMED) of USAID. It is a fine example of public-private partnership. Of the 183 who have been employed, around 75 per cent are women. Rather than a monthly salary, the women are paid per tonne of garbage collected. As an added incentive, they can sell the recyclable material of the garbage in the market.

The new efficient waste management programme has been rolled out with the help of Vasundhara Paryavaran Bahundshayia Sanstha (VPBS), a local NGO which won the contract to provide daily garbage collection services to over 90 per cent of the city. VPBS carries out door-to-door collection as well secondary collection from the roads. While the transport and equipment like the ‘ghantagaddi’ (a cart for door-to-door collection) is provided by VPBS, Janadhar Sewa Bhavi Sanstha, another NGO that works with rag pickers, has done the difficult job of organising the rag pickers and training them in door-to-door garbage collection. Janadhar also pays the waste pickers, but after deducting a percentage of their salaries which is saved in a common bank account. The waste pickers also have independent accounts and according to the rules of employment they have to contribute a percentage from their salary in both the accounts.

However, the project has not been free from problems. During the initial stages of its implementation, the concept of a monthly fee was resisted by many. O.S. Mutange, Project Officer, says, “Interestingly, while the slum dwellers were willing to part with Rs 20 for collection of garbage, this was not true of educated people in the city. Most people feel that it is the responsibility of the government to collect garbage.”

But after the initial hiccups, Latur is now a clean and virtually a disease-free city. And this has been a win-win situation for all concerned – the citizens get a clean city while waste pickers enjoy a better life. The main beneficiaries, though, have been the children of the waste pickers. “Instead of working as garbage collectors, our children now learn vocational courses like carpentry in the morning and go to school in the afternoon,” says Padma Bai, a rag picker in her late 30s and mother of four.

Of the five years that the VPBS contract runs for, two are already over. But this has not spelt uncertainty for the waste pickers, for they have decided to continue with garbage collection even if they do not secure the contract again.

In fact, they are being proactive and thinking of projects that would help sustain them. “We have decided to continue with door-to door collection even after the contract comes to an end. The rag pickers have collectively managed to save about Rs 200,000 and have decided to set up a biomass project. The deal has been signed with Appropriate Rural Technology Initiative (ARTI) of Pune and the project is likely to start soon,” says Swamprakash Wareghan, Secretary of Janadhar Sewa Bhavi Sanstha. ARTI is an NGO that was founded by a group of scientists and social workers in 1996 to serve as an instrument of sustainable rural development through the application of scientific and technological knowledge.

The waste collectors now have a smile on their faces. “Most of the rag pickers are women and their husbands used to drink a lot. This is no longer true. Now, almost 75 per cent of them have stopped drinking,” says Kaneria Tai Saikat, who is responsible for taking the children of garbage collectors to school.

(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)

By Gagandeep Kaur

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