Mumbai’s ragpickers clean-up city’s act

Everyday India’s financial capital, Mumbai, produces 8,000 tonnes of waste. Much of this rubbish ends up on the city’s streets – where women and children spend their days collecting plastics, glass and paper to then sell. The rest is transported to large dumping grounds. But after years of rapid population growth and no formal recycling system, Mumbai’s rubbish heaps are overflowing.

Now, a women’s organisation is trying to reduce Mumbai’s waste and improve the lives of its female waste collectors.

I’m in one of Mumbai’s sorting sheds, which is stacked to the roof with mountains of rubbish. The air is stale and smells of wet cardboard, old milk and food. Here, women are picking through plastics, paper and glass, one item at a time.

“All this is created by people who have money to pamper themselves. So, one packing over another packing and cardboard and what not to make it more presentable. And look who’s suffering. I feel bad.”

Kalpana Andhare is a volunteer with Stree Mukti Sanghatana – an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of Mumbai’s waste pickers. Each day thousands of the city’s poor can be seen trawling through rubbish on street corners and outside restaurants. They look for anything they can sell, from plastic bottles to tin cans.

“Working conditions are very bad. All mixed waste gets thrown on the roads, and people working in the waste have to put their hands in that. It’s a very dirty job.”

That was Jyoti Mhapsekar, the brains behind Stree Mukti Sanghatana. She’s been working with the women for more than ten years, and says they also suffer from social and economic problems.

“They are poorest of the poor in Mumbai. Most of them are single parent families. They’re either widows or they’re deserted by their husbands or they are the wives of alcoholic husbands. So economic conditions are very poor.”

Through the organisation’s program Parisar Vikas – which means Environment Development, Jyoti seeks to empower female rag pickers by getting them off the streets and providing education and training. Women learn how to compost and form business cooperatives, as well as read and write. They can also access health care, micro-credit and family counseling services.

Jyoti believes that through proper training and education, these women can solve Mumbai’s waste problem.

According to Jyoti, Mumbai produces approximately 8,000 tonnes of waste each day. Twenty per cent of this is dry recyclable waste, while 40 percent is wet or biodegradable waste. But despite the obvious opportunities for recycling, Jyoti says it is not being done.

“The municipality at present doesn’t have any program for segregation at source, so naturally everything gets sent to dumping ground.”

Jyoti believes that by segregating, recycling and composting rubbish at apartment complexes throughout Mumbai, the city could ultimately produce little to no waste.

I’m at a large apartment complex, where women from Parisar Vikas are putting Jyoti’s theory to the test. They are putting all biodegradable waste from resident’s rubbish into large concrete tubs, volunteer Kalpana Andhare explains.

“You can get 35 to 40 kgs compost manure in one pit. The gardener takes it and then he uses it for their own gardens.”

The women are recycling and composting in 40 housing colonies across Mumbai, with the ultimate goal of producing zero waste. While dry waste is sold to a private contractor, who deals in recyclable materials. Although the women haven’t hit the target of zero waste yet, Jyoti says they are doing well.

“They collect all the waste. They compost biodegradable waste and they take away dry waste. Only 10 or 15 percent remains for the municipal corporation.”

While this is good news for the city’s environment – for the women the most important aspect has been how the program improves their lives. Today the women are singing an ode to Savithri Bai Phule who was a pioneer in women’s education in India during the mid 1800s.

One of the voices belongs to Shuseela Sabre. Shuseela used to scour Mumbai’s roadside for rubbish every morning. She would then sell the waste to a middleman, making a maximum of 60 rupees a day – or little over one US dollar. As a single mother with one son, she was forced to borrow money from a lender to make ends meet. This quickly led to a cycle of debt.

“He would come to my house everyday and the amount you have to return is from 12 to 30 rupees. Every day you have to give it to them, otherwise they will threaten to lock you out of the house, to throw you out. You beg or borrow from someone else to pay.”

With Parisar Vikas, Shuseela is now a supervisor and makes 150 rupees per day or just over three US dollars. She now lives debt free. But she says, it’s not just about the money.

“Money isn’t everything in life, what knowledge I got what dignity I got. I now get to work with clean clothes and a bag on my shoulder. That is what is important. It is like a rebirth for me.”

For Shuseela, the highlight came last year when she went to the Copenhagen climate summit to discuss Parisar Vikas’ waste management programs in Mumbai.

“When I used to pick up the waste I used to wander near the airport site. I always wondered whether I would get a chance to one-day sit in an aeroplane. When I did get in an aeroplane I could recognise the site where I used to collect rubbish. That was a very important moment in my life.”

Played on Asia Calling on June 19, 2010

Photos by Michael Atkin

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