‘Parisar Vikas’ Empowers Women Ragpickers in Mumbai

“I have a dream that one day women ragpickers can come together and form an association for a ‘plastics bank’, where we can get the profit the ‘seth’ (merchant) makes. If women gain the knowledge of this business they can become owners instead of only being the gatherers of all this garbage,” says Laxmi Kamble, the remarkable leader of Dharavi Project for ragpickers in Mumbai, who is a ragpicker herself.

Kamble has thought it all out for women to obtain training to identify the plastics. According to Kamble, there are around 107 kinds of plastic waste that only an A-1 ‘karigar’ (skilled worker) can determine their correct value and their correct price in the recycling market. It will teach them to negotiate a good deal and giving women a safe space to keep their children while they go out on the streets to pick through garbage.

The biggest stumbling block to Kamble’s dream is that ragpickers are at the lowest end of a chain of the unorganised industry of garbage collection and resale in big cities. As Kamble says, there is no recognition for her work. Women labour from dawn to collect garbage from streets, housing colonies and business districts. They perform the equally routine task of sifting through it and sorting out every useful bit for its eventual sale to big traders and recycling companies.

“Leave alone the recognition for our work, there is no respect for us either,” she rues, adding that people stigmatise ragpickers as “dirty” and “useless.”

They are routinely harassed by civic officials and the police. They are forced to pay a ‘hafta’ (a weekly bribe) that allows them to gather by the pavements or road junctions to sort out their collections.

Estimates of the amount of garbage generated in a metropolis like Mumbai is about 7,000-10,000 tonnes a day and a little more than half of it is collected by the civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). While this goes to a dumping ground in Deonar in North-East Mumbai and two other smaller landfills in Mulund, the dry waste like a humungous amount of plastic, paper, glass, electronic scrap, metal scrap and thermocol, makes its way to recycling centres.

If a ragpicker can collect an average amount of dry waste worth around eight rupees, she can then sell it to a middleman for Rs 10 (US$1=Rs 44). He in turn sells them for Rs 15 and by the time it reaches the big factory where it is processed and recycled, its price can be between Rs 18-25. The profits in the entire business run into crores, but there is no systematic study of the amount generated.

A typical area has around 10 small dealers who buy the garbage from the women and sell it to two-three bigger dealers. The waste goes through elaborate processing. The plastics are sorted out and segregated by colour and quality. They are crushed into tiny bits by machines. This is then washed and sent to a processing unit where it is converted into little plastic pellets and eventually made into toys, bottles, caps, bag handles and other sundry items.

Kamble believes that if women get a space for sorting out their collection they can sell directly to the companies. Acorn India, which launched the Dharavi Project in 2008, has begun cautiously, making 500 members.

“At the moment, we have only given them identity cards and run programmes for their children. We are exploring the situation, seeing how best we can help them,” says Vinod Shetty, the organisation’s Director.

A ragpicker can hope to make anything from Rs 100-150 for four hours of work. However, women who are employed in garbage collection godowns get Rs 110 for nine hours of work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour off for lunch.

Sharada Jogandale is employed in a crushing unit in Dharavi. She wants to leave her job for something more lucrative. The long hours, the dust, th heat of the airless unit and the supervisor who barely allows them a break, has aged her beyond her 25 years.

Another woman, Jogtin, who works in another crushing unit in Dharavi, wants out as well. Here’s why: The women, and men, have no safety equipment, no gloves, no masks, no shoes. In fact, even as this reporter was at the unit, Jogtin asked the supervisor for a bit of soap to wash her hand covered with grease before she went for her lunch break. The latter refused saying he wouldn’t give her any till she finally went off work in the evening. So, Jogtin scrubbed her hands with the already greasy water and went off complaining under her breath! Kamble, too, battles with ailments like asthma, while other women routinely suffer from skin infections and respiratory problems.

Despite the miserable working conditions, ragpickers have been trying to organise themselves to get a better deal. Several Mumbai-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work with them. Parisar Vikas, the project for women ragpickers launched by Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) in 1997, pioneered the organisation of groups of ragpickers and trained them to segregate waste, sell the dry waste and convert the wet (bio-degradable) waste into compost.

Today, Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh, a separately registered NGO, has a membership of over 3,500 women across Mumbai and Pune. It has formed cooperatives of women ragpickers that collect garbage from housing societies, hospitals and malls. Jyoti Mhapsekar, the driving force behind SMS, has brought a strong environmental concern to the work, along with an understanding that their organization would eventually empower them.

Increasing consumerism has only seen the generation of more waste. The value of the recycled waste has increased manifold, with paper and even plastic bottles commanding a premium. The latter that used to net four or five rupees per kilo a few years ago, now fetches Rs 45-50 per kilo. But if incomes from recycling have increased so have expenses, and the lives of women have not improved. What is worse is that big traders have muscled into a business that is being seen as a very lucrative one!

The work of collecting and segregating garbage from housing societies barely fetches Rs 100 a day and the same work in a dumping ground is worth Rs 400. Housing societies are reluctant to pay as much for a job their sweepers can do, though the latter don’t do garbage composting. Government policies which stipulate that NGOs be involved in the recycling process are not implemented, she adds.

Nevertheless, Parisar Vikas is seeking to tweak its model so that the women extract the maximum benefit.

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