The scrap-collectors union of Pune in Maharashtra has given waste-collectors who scoured garbage bins and collected old newspapers and bottles a new respectability and access. The municipal corporation now issues identity cards to them and offers a limited health insurance plan, recognising their contribution to recycling waste in the city.
Located under a railway bridge in the Pimpri-Chinchwad industrial area of Pune, Maharashtra, a shop that purchases scrap from waste-pickers bustles with activity. Outside, painted on a board in black and white, is the name of the union of waste-pickers to which the shop belongs: Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, or literally Paper Glass Metal Workers Union. On the street near the shop a woman has spread out her collection of plastic trash. She is rapidly sorting out the items she will be able to sell. She will get Rs 4 per kilo for hard plastic or ‘kadak’, and Rs 10 per kilo for soft plastic or ‘fugga’ at the scrap shop.
Inside the shop, labourers tie bundles of paper and stack them in an area designated for paper collection. There are separate stacks for coloured paper, white paper, cardboard, plastic ‘dabbas’ or boxes, milk bags, metal scrap and cables. In an adjoining room, a group of boys is sorting and weighing the plastic. A pile of black soles that have been ripped from old shoes lies near the door. At the back of the shop, union representatives of the waste-pickers community of the Pimpri-Chinchwad area are holding their monthly meeting.
The scrap-collectors union was established in 1993. It grew out of a project of the Pune sub-centre of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education, SNDT Women’s University, which first began organising waste-pickers in 1991. The union’s formation was supported by veteran trade unionist Baba Adhav, the Dalit Swayamsevak Sanghatna and a contingent of 800 waste-pickers.
The union is an independent body that runs solely on its own membership fees of Rs 25 per year. It has 3,500 members, mostly women, all of whom are waste-pickers and scrap-collectors. The scrap store, a union activity, was established in 1998 to ensure better returns for waste-pickers who are often cheated by scrap traders. The union began a credit co-operative in 1997 to make reasonably-priced loans available for members who were otherwise paying ‘malwaris’ or moneylenders an exorbitant rate of interest. After saving a sum of Rs 50 every month for six months, members are allowed to borrow double the total amount of their savings at 2% every month. Loans are taken for medical purposes, marriages and emergencies.
Sonabai Navhari Ohad is a 60-year-old waste-picker living in the Chaitaram slum in Vasad. Her son is an alcoholic and she and her daughter-in-law run the house and look after the two children. As a representative of the union, Sonabai informs women about their outstanding loans, conveys their savings to the co-operative and tells them about the proceedings of the monthly meetings. She says: “Now we have our own space, we have our own credit, there is no need to spread our hands before anyone. We don’t need to go to anybody else now, our pride has been restored.”
There are two types of scrap-collectors: one is the category of waste-pickers, 92% women, who actually pick through garbage heaps for scrap; the second is the category of itinerant buyers who purchase scrap directly from households, offices and shops. Sixty-four per cent of itinerant buyers are male and they typically require a certain amount of capital to purchase scrap. Many have pushcarts to facilitate carrying greater loads and weighing scales to ascertain the price of purchases. These itinerant buyers have crowded out other forms of women-dominated itinerant buying such as the ‘dabbabattliwalis’ (literally box-and-bottles women) who wander around with head baskets buying bottles and boxes, and usually offering an approximate flat rate for the scrap they buy.
Waste-pickers typically spend all morning scavenging garbage bins in residential, commercial and industrial areas, at landfills and municipality garbage dumps and in nearby villages. On average, they walk distances of 10-12 km a day with headloads of up to 40 kg of collected scrap. After collection, it takes a few hours to sort through the items in order to divide them into purchasable categories such as paper, glass, wire, etc, which are then sold to scrap traders by weight.
The scrap-collecting profession is fraught with tension and competitiveness not only for territorial rights over the garbage but also between waste-pickers and itinerant buyers, as the purchase of scrap at the doorstep means less scrap in the garbage bins for the waste-pickers.
Poornima Chikarmane, a reader at the SNDT sub-centre that has been involved in organising the scrap-collectors since the 1990s, reminisces that the main issues for scrap-collectors even at the time of the union’s formation were the lack of dignity of work and harassment by the police and municipality workers.
Suman Sadashiv Shivsagar, a union member who is attending the meeting at the scrap shop, says that earlier people used to talk down to her and abuse her for no reason at all. She says: “Since I joined the union five years ago the harassment has reduced…now even if somebody says something to me I have the courage to talk back. Now people address me with respect, they even call me ‘mavshi’ (aunty).” Suman has been working as a waste-picker for the last 20 years, that is, since she was 15 years old. Making a daily income of about Rs 40, she now travels with the municipality garbage truck or ‘ghanta gaadi’ (truck with a bell), which plies residential areas in the city collecting garbage directly from housing societies and other establishments. This is a new initiative by the corporation intended to keep the streets clean and prevent dumping in street garbage bins. However, it has created serious problems for the waste-pickers who depend on access to garbage for their sustenance.
Suman is one of the few waste-pickers who have access to the garbage lifted by the ‘ghanta gaadi’, but it comes at a price. Corporation workers demand money from her, and while she keeps 40% of her earnings she has to part with 60%.
Most people involved in the collection of scrap are Dalits, primarily from the Mahar and Matang communities. Many have moved here from the Solapur and Marathwada districts, where they were engaged in agricultural wage labour or bonded labour, following the drought of 1972.
The union regularly issues identity cards endorsed by the municipal corporation to its members. This has led to easier access to garbage and to a greater respectability for the profession. The corporation offers a limited medical insurance plan to identity cardholders, for which it pays a premium. The cards have been used to gain access to a central government scheme that offers scholarships for the children of families in unclean professions, explains Chikarmane. They have even been used as collateral and bail.
At a union representatives meeting at the Mahatma Phule Samata Prathistan, the registered office of Kagad Kach Patra and other informal workers unions, in Bhawani Peth, tensions quickly come to a boil. Union members complain about scrap-collectors without identity cards who roam the streets at night buying scrap from the watchmen of various establishments. Some of this material is also stolen. A heated debate ensues about who should be given identity cards, as some members say that people without identification must not be allowed access to garbage. A couple of others say that new identity cards should not be issued at all because there is already stiff competition in the trade. However, the issue of identity cards is a complex one, for although the municipality endorses them, they cannot determine waste-pickers’ entry into the business nor their access to garbage, which has always been fluid. Others at the meeting remind their colleagues about this and about the drought in the state which is leading to more migrations into the business.
Union representatives serve not only to liaison between the union and its members, they are also given training to deal with cases of police harassment, conflicts between the waste-pickers themselves, with the domestic violence that women suffer in the community, and with alcoholism.
One of the union’s aims has been to get recognition for the scrap-collectors under the Maharashtra Hamal Mathadi and other Unprotected Workers (Regulation of Employment and Welfare) Act, 1969. This Act presently covers head-loaders/porters and entitles them to paid leave, provident fund, gratuity and medical benefits. The union argues that scrap-collectors are doing socially useful and economically productive work and are saving the municipal corporation garbage transportation costs. On average, the scrap-collectors collect and convey 81 metric tonnes of scrap to traders every single day. In effect, they provide the corporation free labour and help in the process of recycling. They say the corporation must value and regularise their work.
Waste-picking is an occupation in which child labour has traditionally been high. But repeated union intervention in terms of school enrolment drives, monitoring of dropouts, and incentives in the form of prizes and notebooks, has resulted in a 76% decline in the number of young waste-pickers. The union’s interventions against child marriage, a common practice within the community, have also helped. In 2001, waste-picking was included among the hazardous occupations banned under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.
Despite their many problems, the waste-pickers associated with the union show a remarkable articulation of their life situation and a strength that speaks of years of endurance of harsh conditions. The collectivity forged through the union has created the space for these hardships to surface, to be spoken about and to be addressed.