Let’s Talk About Dehradun's Safai Sathis

Do you know where your waste goes after it leaves your home? How many hands does it change? Most of us have very limited knowledge about it. Either the Nagar Nigam (Municipal Corporation) is collecting it from our houses, or we throw our waste in the nearest dustbin installed by the Nagar Nigam, but in almost all cases it is dumped in trenching grounds. But after that, a lot happens of which we aren’t aware.



In South Asian countries, it is a common sight to see waste pickers searching for all kinds of recyclable items from dumpsites or municipal dustbins, from plastic bottles, metals, polythene, cardboard, and so much more. From there, they sell these recyclables by weight to small scrap dealers to make some money. They start their day early in the morning, and they come back to their makeshift homes late in the evening. Leaving very little time to spend for themselves or their family.

Talking to Ranjana, a Safai Sathi from Sapera basti.

Talking to Ranjana, a Safai Sathi from Sapera basti.


UNDP India and HCCB have partnered to start PRITHVI, and are working with implementation partners across the country to recognise the crucial role played by waste pickers in the plastic waste recycling channel. Our Waste Warriors team is their partner in Dehradun.


Ms. Ranjana met us while we were out on a survey to understand how household activities can be started in new wards. Under the scorching heat of the sun, she roams around the city to find and collect recyclable plastic on the roads. We asked her some basic information about her family and work. She told us that she lives in Sapera basti in Raipur, where many more waste pickers live, as well as other scrap dealers.


Waste pickers’ settlement in Bihari basti.


Waste pickers in Dehradun live largely in temporary settlements, where they struggle for basic amenities like water supply, electricity, and sanitation. The majority have migrated from villages or from other states like Bihar, Assam and Punjab. It is a real struggle for them to demand for such basic municipal amenities.


We met people at Sapera basti to learn about their lives.


Even if they do demand for it, their voices are unheard by the authorities as it is not strong enough to reach them. A major concern is in the lives of waste pickers is that they are so involved in their daily struggles that they don’t have time to work collectively for the bigger solution. This is why our team is trying to conduct meetings with waste pickers and enable them to realize their collective power as a community.


Children of Safai Sathis playing outside their homes.


Safai Sathis – as we are now calling them to reduce the stigma associated with their lives and work – work hard all through the day because they have the motivation to do so in their homes. Waste pickers who are parents see big dreams for their children. Most of the children go to school regularly while some of them also go to pick waste on some days to help their parents. But all of them play together and never forget to have fun, which is the best part of a child’s life.


Talking to curious children at a basti.


Our team is committed to improving the living standards of our Safai Sathis around Dehradun. We do community activities with schools, households and citizens to destigmatize the work they do, as it has many negative associations stuck to it by society and culture at large. Under PRITHVI, we’re working to get the public to actually recognise and respect them as hard-working environmentalists because what they do helps prevent recyclable waste from ending up in our city’s trenching grounds, and moving that material into the proper recycling channels.


Written by Shubham Mishra, WWS Project Assistant and India Fellow