On 5th July 2019, Waste Warriors Society got an opportunity to attend a Waste Pickers round-table conference held at UNDP office in Delhi. The theme itself was so intriguing that we were glad to be a part of it. Although the meeting was convened for the waste pickers – now known as Safai Sathis within this UNDP programme – of NCR region only, we attended it to get a better understanding of the problems faced by waste pickers in their own words.
Safai Sathi families attending the round-table conference at UNDP India.
We were glad to see so many Safai Sathis sharing the table with UNDP Head of Circular Economy, Prabhjot Sodhi, Binay Jha (MoHUA), Ramakant Rai (MoHUA), Shalini Sinha (WIEGO - Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) and officials from Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd. It gives us hope for a better future for our Safai Sathis, when institutions like UNDP and Coca-Cola recognize the crucial role played by them in getting recyclable plastic waste back to their recycling channels. The meeting was also special in the sense that each Safai Sathi seemed confident and motivated, as they were backed up by Non-Profit Organisations, working dedicatedly with and for them for many years.
Mr. Kabir Arora from Indian Alliance of Waste Pickers, talking about waste pickers’ problems.
We would like to mention a heart-touching moment that everyone noticed at that UNDP conference room. One of our Safai Sathis was a little nervous when his infant child was innocently playing in the middle of meeting. He tried to control his child, but Mr. Sodhi warmly tapped his shoulder and asked him to let the baby do what it wanted. The kind gesture of Mr. Sodhi, who is the face of PRITHVI and is UNDP India’s head of Circular Economy, made everyone in the room feel comfortable, inspired, and motivated.
Safai Sathi from NCR, speaking of his problems before MoHUA and UNDP.
It felt that it was the Safai Sathis who led this meeting. They elaborated on the problems they face in their daily lives. Very few groups of people know that there are certain policies and acts framed specifically for waste pickers only. This lack of knowledge not only leads to a lack of recognition for the work they do, but also the exploitation of their work rights and instances of physical abuse. The Solid Waste Management Act, 2016 guarantees the first ‘Right to Access to Waste’ to the waste pickers but it is quite contradictory with the ground reality. Safai Sathis are denied entry in many localities in the city. In these localities, all the waste is collected by some private agencies who charge each household for waste collection. They do only partial segregation of recyclable waste and dump the rest directly at the dumping sites. It is not only Safai Sathis who are affected by the way these private contractors work: all the other unsegregated recyclables are going directly to dumping sites as mixed waste, and this does have harmful effects on the environment around the sites, too.
Mr. Sodhi highlighting UNDP India’s vision and strategy for this programme.
Safai Sathis also suffer in many other ways, from social discrimination for their work and a lot of physical hardships while they work. They go through a back-breaking daily routine where they have to bend hundreds of times a day to pick up various kinds of recyclable waste. There are very few laws made to safeguard the rights of waste pickers, and the laws that do exist have very weak implementation mechanisms. Even the people for whom these laws are framed aren’t aware of this. The SWM Act 2016, states that, it is a right of waste pickers to have a place where they can segregate their waste. But still most municipalities are unaware of this.
Everyone present at the meeting took a pledge to improve the lives of Safai Sathis.
Through this programme, supported by HCCB, UNDP has brought together a range of organisations working to improve the lives and livelihoods of Safai Sathis and to strengthen and leverage the larger informal recycling network. Mr. Sodhi, who was presiding the meeting, announced that our vision is to work together for peaceful solutions in collaboration with each other. Be it municipalities, private vendors, or other people in society, the larger vision is to bring them together and create a conscious community. This community will have empathy for Safai Sathis, and will be ready to truly respect the work they do.
Written by Shubham Mishra, WWS Project Assistant and India Fellow