Foundations Help Give Voice to Indian 'Waste Pickers'

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates and Caterpillar foundations, CHF International has opened three waste management facilities in Bangalore to help Indian waste pickers turn their informal but essential activities into a viable industry, the New York Times reports.

Through its Trash to Treasure program, CHF spent $250,000 to build the Kasa Rasa center, a 2,500-square-foot facility that can process 1.5 tons of recyclable material a day, as well as two smaller waste management centers in Bangalore, where waste picking is an essential element of the city's underground economy. In India, as many as 1.5 million residents — mostly women and the majority from lower castes — collect garbage from local households to support their families. The recyclable materials are sorted, typically in back alleys or vacant lots, and sold for pennies on the pound. On average waste pickers earn about 100 rupees, or $2, a day. But under the CHF program, they now stand to receive two salaries — one from households for collecting waste and another from CHF, which buys the collected recyclables at publicly listed prices — boosting daily incomes to about 250 rupees.

Moreover, as part of the program, CHF advocates on behalf of waste pickers — who are replacing the city's irregular and inefficient waste collection services and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — by urging local offices to recognize their work. To that end, CHF created Parivarthana ("change") to help women working in the Rajendra Nagar slums organize themselves and strategize their work plans. In addition, more than eighty of the approximately two hundred and fifty collectors in the CHF program are involved in self-help groups that offer the women a chance to tackle personal issues ranging from abuse at home to lack of financial skills. And to help group members cover unexpected expenses such as healthcare costs, some of the women have pooled their resources to create a revolving fund that can be drawn on by any member at any time.

CHF is one of a number of groups working to give waste pickers a voice. Last fall, many such organizations met at a United Nations-sponsored climate change panel in China, where several waste pickers testified. Brian English, a CHF county director in India, told the Times that at the meeting the waste pickers spoke about their work and the conditions and difficulties they face. "It was powerful to see people going from the absolute bottom of the food chain to the international arena," said English. "They get marginalized, they get boxed out. They want recognition as workers."

Joey Peters. "Foundations Try to Legitimize India's 'Invisible Environmentalists'." New York Times 05/16/2011.