His relationship with waste started when he was 12. After running away from a school managed by Christian missionaries, Santosh Francis, an orphan, lived on the streets of Bangalore. “There are few options when you live on the street. You can beg, steal, look for odd jobs or pick waste to sell to scrap dealers," says Francis.

Francis, now 36, chose the last option. He recalls walking up to 15km a day to pick up about 50kg of waste that would earn him 45 a day. His scavenging area spanned from Shivajinagar in north Bangalore to Ulsoor in the north-east. For more than a decade, he roamed the streets looking for waste paper, plastic and bottles in garbage piles.  That was a time when recycling was not seen as a viable option. Today, 24 years later, having dabbled over the years in odd jobs like carpentry, screen painting and driving a cab, Francis is making a career out of waste.

If you have been following the news, you know Bangalore is flooded with waste. “Yes, it is a business opportunity, but that doesn’t make us happy. Let us work with you to make the city clean," pleads Francis, who now speaks four languages, including impeccable English. He is one of the over 15,000 waste-pickers in Bangalore—an unorganized community that scavenges the streets and garbage piles to retrieve paper, plastic, glass and anything that can be sold for recycling. Dressed in khaki-coloured trousers and a shirt with a green cap—the uniform of his team—Francis has a constant smile on his face. His team is made up of friends from his days as a waste picker.

Francis’ team buying waste. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint
Francis’ team buying waste. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint

But collecting waste from houses is not easy. “We go on door-to-door campaigns asking people to segregate their waste and sell it to us. Many people like the fact that they make money (out of waste) but sometimes they get greedy and start bargaining," says Francis. Six hundred houses in the locality have signed up with him; the team makes 50,000 per month by recycling 5,000kg of waste. This allows them to just break even on the cost of running the centre and paying salaries as well as for the four collection vehicles they have bought with loans. “I hope to reach a target of 1 tonne per month," Francis says. “If I do well, other waste pickers will enter the business." A happy by-product, he says, is that it will take waste pickers off the street.

Francis talks about his wife, Helen, and their two children. He first met her in 2002; her family was apprehensive initially. “Nobody would give me their daughter’s hand in marriage then," says Francis. They had a three-year courtship so Helen could understand the nature of his job.

Besides Francis’, five other DWCCs in different parts of Bangalore are run by Hasiru Dala, which was formed in June 2011. “We are in conversation with the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to allow all management of dry waste to be given to our members," says Nalini Shekhar who founded the organization, yet to be registered, in association with seven other NGOs. It is modelled on the Pune-based cooperative SWaCH Seva Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit, where Shekhar worked previously.

Hasiru Dala has a membership of over 4,500 waste pickers, scrap dealers and waste sorters. Each member is given an identity card endorsed by the BBMP commissioner so they are not harassed. The organization is new, so, barring the few DWCC workers, the rest continue to pick and sell waste independently, or collect it and give it to the BBMP. According to a survey conducted by Bangalore-based NGO Mythri Sarva Seva Samithi, up to 600 tonnes of dry waste is recycled daily by the unorganized sector.

A filth-strewn street in Shivajinagar. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint

It will take two and a half years for a DWCC, like the one Francis has set up, to start making profits. But the “BBMP has constantly had labour issues," says Shekhar. “Waste pickers with identity cards are the best replacement." She is also looking to train them to compost.

In a room inside the Centre for Management Studies, Jain University, Bangalore, 30 people are gathered. “We come here on the 17th of every month and discuss how to help members either get jobs with the city corporation or create businesses in the industry," says Krishnamurthy, a field worker and member of Hasiru Dala, who conducts the meeting. Here, Francis is a star. Krishnamurthy, who calls Francis “captain" for being ahead of the rest in the business, asks him to address the group. Francis switches smoothly between Tamil and Kannada to ensure everybody understands him. “We pick up waste from homes in Domlur and sell them to scrap dealers just like you do. Only now, we are authorized by the BBMP and the scale is larger," he explains. Not everybody has his business acumen, but they are keen on doing better.

Some just want their daily problems solved. Chitra, a waste picker, complains that she is teased by people when she goes out into the streets at 3am to collect waste. “Why don’t you go out in groups," Krishnamurthy suggests.

To keep up morale, Radio Active Community Radio, one of the founding organizations of Hasiru Dala, launched a programme for waste pickers on 26 January. Kasa Shramika Parisara Rakshka (which, in Kannada, means waste pickers are saviours of the environment) is aired on Radio Active CR 90.4 MHz Monday-Friday, from 11-11.30am. It has new waste pickers as RJs from different slums or settlements in Bangalore. “Since the reception is not wide, sometimes we take recordings of programmes and visit slums across the city to play them," says Pinky Chandran, co-founder of Hasiru Dala, who works at the radio. The show not only helps mobilize the community, but also offers waste-pickers a platform to air their views, share life stories, highlight issues, and seek solutions.

“The monthly meeting is where we are reminded that we are not alone," says Francis.

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