Empowering waste workers for a cleaner, safer city

In the city of Pune in western India, a group of marginalized women are at the forefront of a campaign to clean their city.

Pune is home to India’s first wholly self-owned cooperative of self-employed waste pickers – what could be called Pune city’s all-women cleaning army. Through an agreement with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), more than 3,000 women workers provide door-to-door waste collection services to over 600,000 homes in the city, recycling more than 50,000 tonnes of waste a year.

The workers segregate the waste that they collect into either recyclables— paper, plastics, metals, and glass—or wet waste, which is taken for composting. Known as “SWaCH” (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), the co-operative has developed a significant composting operation, which sees wet waste turned into valuable natural fertilizer.

Originally intended to improve the life of those who had earned their livelihoods rummaging through landfills, the co-operative is also now encouraging a new and more sustainable model of waste disposal.

The environmental impacts are significant. SWaCH says that, in one year, the recycling of the paper that it collects prevents the felling of over 350,000 trees, and avoids the release of over 130,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.

Segregation of waste is technically mandatory in Pune, but not all households follow through. A recent survey found that many of the city’s residents simply don’t take the time to segregate their waste. That makes the efforts of the SWaCH initiative that much more important.

And there are social benefits as well. Over 1.2 million people – roughly one third of Pune’s population – live in the city’s slums, where there are little or no waste management services. SWaCH is one of the first initiatives in India to extend door-to-door collection of garbage to these impoverished areas.

SWaCH worker
Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat/SWaCH

Rajani, a resident of the Kothrud area in western Pune, where the effort has borne great results, is happy with the changes: “Earlier the gutters would get choked with all sorts of garbage,” says Rajani, a woman in her mid-30s. “Now all the plastic that used to choke the drains is collected, also leading to health benefits for the community.”

Suresh Jagtap, Deputy Commissioner of the Pune Municipal Corporation, praised SWaCH’s door-to-door collection efforts: “In Pune city, this is a crucial first step towards a more efficient waste management system to enable an efficient door-to-door collection system, and making it thorough and sustainable. We have been focusing on slums first and have been able to remove over a 150 chronic spots where garbage would otherwise collect.”

But reaching this scale of operation was not easy. In 1993, waste pickers and itinerant waste buyers in the city came together to form a membership-based trade union. In 2005, they created a formal Pro-poor Public Private Partnership under the name of SWaCH, a wholly-owned workers’ cooperative that would undertake door-to-door waste collection.

The membership has grown steadily since. Today, 80 per cent of the members – all of whom are female – are from marginalized castes. Each member pays an annual fee to the organization and an equal amount towards their life insurance cover. Members are given identity cards that are endorsed by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and that allow them to avail of other benefits, such as interest-free loans and educational support for their children.

SWaCH worker
Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat/SWaCH

A major strength of the SWaCH model has been its campaign for waste collectors to be recognized as “workers,” and for waste picking to be seen as legitimate work.

In India, waste workers are generally seen as occupying the lowest rung of society; their role is rarely acknowledged or respected. Further, the move to lease out waste collection to private companies threatened the livelihood of waste pickers who depend on recyclable waste (paper, metal, plastic, and glass) to sell and make a living.

SWaCH has helped change the perception of waste pickers as self-employed municipal workers. The labour that they put into retrieving, sorting, breaking down, and sometimes washing the rubbish converts the collected material into commodities that can then be sold as raw material to manufacturing industries. In effect, this makes waste pickers integral to the materials supply chain for industry – and key contributors to national productivity and income.

Pune was among the first municipalities in the country to authorize waste pickers and itinerant waste buyers to collect recyclables by endorsing their photo-identity cards. In turn, the cards afford them respectability and a sense of identity.

Recognizing their work, the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Water and Sanitation honoured SWaCH with an official award in 2016.

India is the host of World Environment Day 2018. The theme this year is #BeatPlasticPollution.


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