The Indian city is finding a path out of an urban trash crisis by bringing dignity to workers who once were ostracized.
BANGALORE, India — As 38-year-old Annamma holds up her government-issued ID card, she can't stop grinning. She has come a long way from her childhood on the streets: rootless, homeless, faceless. She grew up with four siblings and one name, common for children of illiterate parents here. The kids would rummage with their parents in garbage dumps for paper or plastic to sell to recyclers. They were a family of waste-pickers, driven by poverty from their native South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to the booming IT hub of Bangalore in neighboring Karnataka.
Annamma remembers rainy nights spent under makeshift tents of sticks and plastic sheets, and scorching hot days spent in an endless search for scrap. She remembers being shunned by society, harassed by police, and viewed with suspicion wherever she went foraging. She never expected any better from life.
Now, her ID card gives her legitimacy and a defense against harassment by authorities. The card also entitles her to benefits like health care and a scholarship for her children. But that's only the beginning of the transformation Annamma has experienced in the past year. Thanks to a 2012 trash crisis that had garbage piling up on the streets in Bangalore, Annamma now finds herself at the center of an ambitious experiment in reinventing how the city handles the 4,000 tons of waste it produces each day.
Annamma has become the manager of something called a dry waste collection center. Trash haulers bring dry waste, including paper, plastic and glass, to the ventilated concrete structure. (Wet waste such as food and organic matter goes to compost and biogas units.) At Annamma's center, other waste-pickers sort through this trash and move what they can up the chain to scrap dealers and other specialized recyclers. It's essentially what they had been doing before, but in a healthier environment and without having to trudge around landfills where hazardous e-wastes and used sanitary napkins would be mixed in. The city plans to roll out these centers in all 196 of its wards.
What Annamma has been doing all her life has suddenly become a civic priority — formalized, dignified and systematized. It's an outcome that the many millions of waste-pickers in the world's developing cities could draw hope from. Annamma took charge of her waste center in January. "Living on the streets, my parents could only think of how to get the next meal," she says. "I am better off now. I can give my three daughters an education."
Armies of Waste-Pickers
Annamma's elevation to a waste-center manager is the culmination of a dramatic 18 months in the life of a Bangalore waste-picker.
It began in the autumn of 2012, when Bangalore's shiny image as an outsourcing destination got sullied, as mounds of garbage festered on street corners and dengue fever spread in the city. For some time, Bangalore had used a centralized trash system — contractors licensed by the municipality would transport the city's waste to landfills on the outskirts. But villagers near those landfills revolted at having all the city’s trash dumped near their farms and homes. They began stopping trash trucks and attacking drivers.
The contractors stopped plying their garbage trucks. Waste disposal was suspended, and thousands of tons of muck simply piled up each day in the city. This went on for weeks. A city known as the "Garden City" for its large parks got a new epithet: "Garbage City." The civic authorities went redder in the face each day as the high court issued one stern directive after another to clear up the mess.
To Annamma, a pile of garbage had always represented a means of livelihood, and not something from which to turn away in disgust. But even she could not have imagined how transformative these new putrefying piles of garbage would be for her.
From being a pariah on the fringes of society, she found herself thrust to the frontlines of a fight to contain a civic and health crisis in India's software capital. NGOs persuaded armies of waste-pickers to come to the aid of the city in distress. They helped cart away whatever could be recycled, and burn the rest.
But a more fundamental change took place during the landfill impasse. This is when Bangalore’s officialdom started paying heed to what social workers had been crying hoarse over for years — that waste-pickers should be made a part of waste stream management to take advantage of India's recycling culture.
The Maryada of the Green Force
Annamma was among 20,000 waste-pickers in Bangalore who had been trained from an early age to rifle through trash and take out what was of value to scrap dealers — sorted into different grades of paper, types of plastic, and so on. Now their service to the community was being formally recognized and legitimized.
The seeds of this change were planted before the trash crisis. An international NGO called Global Communities had successfully piloted a version of the waste collection center a couple of years earlier. Global Communities had also created a waste-pickers’ association called Hasirudala, which means “Green Force” in the local Kannada language. The city corporation issued identity cards to members of Hasirudala, which now has 7,000 members.
Annamma had hesitated to join Hasirudala at first. She was scared they might harm her. Nothing good had ever come out of her encounters with society, and she was habituated to lying low. But the ID card and a green jacket with a Green Force insignia on it were enticing. She is glad now that she let herself be persuaded. It gave her something she had lacked all her life: Maryada — respect. "Now there is dignity when we go to collect waste," she says. "If somebody questions us, we can show the card. Earlier, people would drive us away as though we were thieves."
Collective strength has its uses. When the police recently rounded up a waste-picker as a suspect in a car theft, a Hasirudala group camped at the police station to draw attention to the flimsy grounds for the arrest. The waste-picker was soon released. This had never happened before. A feeling of empowerment and self-worth had come over Annamma. But even that pales in comparison to what she felt when she took over the Dry Waste Collection Center on a patch of municipal ground near the Kamakshipalya inter-state bus terminus.
Support for a new manager
The city corporation had decided that, wherever possible, members of Hasirudala would be entrusted with running the new collection centers. But at Kamakshipalya, nobody came forward to do it initially.
A waste-picker is used to living in a cocoon, not carrying out managerial responsibilities. But again, Annamma allowed herself to be persuaded. She had more than three decades of experience in "marketing" of trash, after all. It was the thought of accounting, inventory-keeping and managing a group of waste-pickers that she found daunting.
Global Communities and Hasirudala representatives assured her of their guidance. But she also found support from an unexpected quarter: her own home. Her school-going 15-year-old daughter Jyothi — "who will not be a waste-picker," Annamma says — would help with the books. That was the tipping point for Annamma: "I will stand up and do it," she decided.
The waste center is a well-ventilated hall, with a weighing scale at the entrance and large sacks of sorted waste piled up at the back. One of them contained used wrappers of biscuits and other dry munchies. This was of low value in the recycling market because the plastic film on laminated paper wrappers makes them harder to reprocess. Such is the tacit knowledge waste-pickers have about the value of trash.
Annamma's share of the profits from the center, which she runs along with her husband Ramesh and four others, amounts to 4 to 5 U.S. dollars a day – that's twice as much as she used to make as a waste-picker working on her own. She doesn't go on the waste-picking rounds herself any more. She buys trash at bulk rates from other waste-pickers, and also has dry waste delivered to her by the local garbage disposal contractor. Annamma and the other waste-pickers who work at her center now contribute Rs 200 ($3.30 U.S.) monthly to a common pool should any of them encounter an emergency such as a health problem.
An Uncertain Future
In addition to the social benefits, the new decentralized model will reduce greenhouse gas emissions — waste won’t have to be moved as far as it used to. So far, 106 of the dry waste centers have come online in the city. They cost $20,000 to $30,000 each to set up, mostly to construct a building and provide a weighing scale. The centers are being sited on unused government land. Once built, they’re self sustaining, with some assistance from NGOs on administration.
Not all is going smoothly, however. One problem is that Bangalore residents are having trouble adjusting to the new regime of separating their wet and dry wastes. Even if they do separate it, there’s no guarantee that the garbage collectors won’t mix it all together anyway. Garbage contractors had grown fat trucking waste to landfills. They were paid by the amount of garbage they transported and the distances covered. The city has begun signing new agreements with the contractors, but until they’re all in place, some haulers continue to have an incentive to take trash to the landfills rather than the dry waste centers.
Perhaps because of these hurdles, Annamma's center gets less than half of the one ton of dry waste it is built to handle. Hopefully for Annamma, a combination of social pressure, punitive measures and restyled contracts will result in a larger percentage of waste being segregated, with the dry waste going to the centers.
But the centers face an even more existential threat. A powerful industrial lobby, backed by politicians and friends in the media, has been campaigning against the waste centers program, arguing that it is a piecemeal solution. They want to set up waste-to-energy plants instead. The plants would burn all waste — wet and dry.
Such a scheme would have some benefits, such as producing electricity. But it would undermine the economics of the waste centers. The less waste that flows to Annamma’s center, the less metal, plastic and paper there is for the waste-pickers to sort and the less money they and Annamma make. Recently a deal for such a plant was scrapped due to a time overrun, but Mayor B S Sathyanarayana has kept the option open. “There are many companies lined up,” he says.
A stroke of a pen and change in policy could undo what Annamma has gained. For her own sake and for that of the other waste-pickers, she hopes that doesn’t happen. "Every day we’re learning new things," Annamma says. "We don’t feel as isolated and hopeless as we used to be."
Top image: Annamma, 38, has picked recyclable garbage from dumps her whole life. Now, she manages a recycling center in Bangalore, India. (Lakshmanan Selvaprakash)