Practically every city in India wants to metamorphose into a world-class metropolis—spotless, sparkling, leaving no space for the ubiquitous waste-picker. Municipal corporations have on their drawing boards plans for compactors and other machines that will make short shrift of garbage, either carting it out of sight to landfills or burning it. Making landfills benign by siphoning off the toxic leachate from the waste and getting rid of the terrible foul odour has now become a challenge and is being applauded for its value addition to carbon credits.
But do we have to go through this again and again, in the fever of cities wanting to remove waste as fast as possible and recreate landfills? Not necessarily. In India, we have an opportunity to engage in city waste disposal, in ways that can be environmentally safe as well as provide livelihoods to the hard-pressed worker in the informal sector.
Enter the more than 1.5 million scrap and waste collectors who earn their livelihood from the collection of paper, plastic, metal and glass scrap for sale to recycling industries. They are now a loose association across India, and through organized collective bargaining, are shaking off middlemen and trying to be their own recyclers and traders. They call themselves green-collar workers.
Over the past two decades, the contribution of these invisible environmentalists has been recorded in successive government reports and policy documents, largely due to the efforts of workers’ organizations. The expert committee on solid waste management appointed by the Supreme Court, the high-powered committee on solid waste management and the Second National Labour Commission have recorded their appreciation of the informal recycling sector’s contribution, and called for recognizing and upgrading their livelihoods, and for incentives to encourage recycling.
A new book by Kaveri Gill, Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy, not only deals with this subject, but also argues that the terms of public debate on environmental issues were moulded by concerns of the privileged sections of society: “On the one hand, the government fully condones the imports of plastic waste, and on the other, they wish to ban the recycling of waste that is produced in our country.”
Recycled waste can yield several alternative energy products, building materials and handicrafts. For example, 80% of the iron furnaces in Ahmedabad closed due to the global financial crisis. Perhaps they can be linked to the metal scrap that is piling up. This would have a livelihood safeguarding as well as value addition effect. There are similar idle industrial capacities due to the downturn, which can be used by the waste-pickers.
Technologies for converting waste into value are available so that the waste can be processed and marketed with incentives—a resource gift for self-help groups and construction firms. Lastly, a worthy stimulus or a budgetary provision can be made to initiate a special credit and technology-providing scheme for dispersed recycling of waste by the green-collar workers.
Devaki Jain was a lecturer in economics at the University of Delhi, and later director of the Institute of Social Studies. She has been a member of the erstwhile South Commission, and is now on the governing council of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Comment at email@example.com