Can zero waste happen? Journey of Zero Waste Management in Vidarbha

By Jyoti Mhapsekar, Gazala Paul*

When a few women activists from Mumbai launched Stree Mukti Sanghatana, little did they know that they were going to be pioneers in urban zero waste management. Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) meaning ‘Women’s Liberation Organisation’ was established in 1975 by Jyoti Mhapsekar, Sharada Sathe and others to bring women’s issues in the public domain and consciousness. It is best known for its flagship play, “Mulgi Jhali Ho” (A Girl Child Has Born), which inspired women from all spheres of life to look at the women’s issues with a fresh perspective. SMS, an apolitical voluntary organisation, has raised women’s issues irrespective of caste, class, creed, religion, language and nationality.

For more than a decade SMS used the medium of play to create awareness, launched a magazine named “Prerak Lalkari” (Clarion Call), campaigned across Maharashtra on equal status to women, and started Family Counselling Centres for women in distress. In nineties, it extended its work with college going girls with a programme called Jigyasa (curiosity), and then by the end of nineties’ decade started working with women waste pickers with a programme called Parisar Vikas. This programme started a new journey for SMS, which has around 3000 women waste pickers in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), and was accredited by ECOSOC (United Nations) in 1999 for its pioneering work.

It was while working with women waste pickers (called as Parisar Bhagini or neighbourhood sisters) on health and hygiene that SMS realised the importance of waste management, the inter-linkages of urban poverty, solid waste, and the contribution of waste pickers in recycling industry’s growth.

Recycling as a productive livelihood

Waste pickers pick thrown away ‘zero value material’, and then convert it into a tradable and recyclable material through their labour, and grit. They extract things from the mess, sort and grade them, and carry the waste in a revised form as a raw material for manufacturing and reprocessing industry. For the manufacturers, the use of cheap scrap reduces the production costs of goods such as paper, metal, and glass. But the scrap market is not recognised, it is part of the informal sector, and its contribution to the economy is not taken into account. As such, it is unregulated despite its contribution to the environmental conservation through recycling.

Recycling of waste can generate employment opportunities for the urban poor. It needs bare minimal investment, and prevents natural resources going down the drain. Waste pickers are self-employed workers, part of a large urban informal economy. They work long hours amidst piles of putrefying garbage to retrieve bits of scrap with their bare hands, on the streets, in containers and at the landfills. Broadly waste collectors can be classified on the basis of how they source scrap and from where they source it:

  1. Itinerant Waste Buyers (IWB): Generally men moving around with push carts and bicycles to buy small quantities of recyclable waste from households and small commercial establishments;
  2. Integrated waste collectors (IWC): Waste pickers who have been integrated into door to door collection of waste;
  3. Waste Pickers (WP): Moving around on foot on the streets and at garbage bins to retrieve and collect paper, plastic, metal, glass and other recyclables from household or commercial garbage;
  4. Waste pickers on dumps and landfill sites who salvage recyclable materials under extremely hazardous conditions. Often whole families are involved, including women and, in many cases, children.

In most cities in the world, women form the major part of this informal sector. The significant contribution of waste pickers to the city is:

  • Costs: Reduction in municipal waste-handling and transport costs
  • Raw Material: Supply of raw material to recycling factories
  • City Space: Saving space at the dumping grounds

Buldhana Partnership: Aspiring for quality of life

It was while working with Parisar Bhagini on Parisar Vikas programme SMS realised the importance of training waste pickers to do resource recovery through composting. SMS developed modules to train waste pickers in sorting, and composting waste combined with life skills. It also developed a “zero waste” model for housing and commercial complexes to segregate waste, compost “wet waste”, dry waste sent to recycling, and only hazardous waste handed over to Municipal Corporation for scientific land filling. SMS designed and developed compost pits of varying sizes, and baskets to be used for home compositing.

After it started working with women waste pickers, SMS joined Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers, a national organisation covering 35 cities in 2007. Around the same time, it sensed opportunities outside its core zone (MMR), and wanted to scale up the “zero waste” model across the state. It was looking for partnerships, and approached Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), independent grant-makers in the UK to work in waste management in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. SMS was running a Family Counselling Centre in Buldhana (Vidarbha region), and as such SMS and PHF partnered to work on a pilot project, “waste management and empowerment of women waste pickers” in Buldhana town. The project was seeded across the town and laid a platform for organizing and securing livelihoods of women from marginalized communities in the Vidarbha region.

In last two decades changes in the economical and natural environment have altered the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the Indian society. Ever expanding city limits and migration to cities have unsettled urban and rural population alike. Survival in the changed scenario is a challenge for vulnerable poor communities. This project was an initiative to assist women waste pickers and other poor communities in improving their own working conditions, have access to their rightful entitlements, and aspirations for better quality of life.

Turning problems into solutions

The people from small towns considered waste management as a concern only of metro cities. They did not realise that the rapid urbanisation had thrown that issue in their backyard. So, when SMS team approached Buldhana Municipal Corporation, they were shocked. They did not admit the problem existed, did not acknowledge the presence of waste pickers in the town, and looked away.

Through the baseline survey, SMS identified about 150 women waste pickers, and advocated with the Corporation to get them Identity Cards. SMS then redesigned its strategies, developed tools, and trained the women waste pickers on waste management techniques – pits construction, composting etc. The women were grouped into self-help groups (SHGs), and health camps were organised for them. SMS then carried out an awareness campaign, and study classes in the community. This resulted in around thousand families segregating the household waste, and the City Council (Nagar Parishad) started the collection process by bringing the entire town under one contractor.

Swach Bharat Mohim (SBM), the flagship cleanliness campaign of the Govt. of India gave a fillip to the process. With the help of PHF, SMS organized a national conference in New Delhi. Ms Anita Agnihotri, the then Secretary of Social Justice Department, attended this conference, and announced the inclusion of waste picking in the definition of ‘Unclean Profession’. This was a landmark victory for waste pickers! In 2016, new rules were introduced, and PHF helped SMS to publish its training manual in Hindi along with new rules.

Wardha: the land of Mahatma Gandhi

SMS organised a brainstorming workshop on solid waste management in Wardha to explore the scale up in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Wardha is blessed to be the city where Mahatma Gandhi carried out his experiments during freedom struggle. He and his disciple Acharya Vinod Bhave focused on personal as well as social hygiene. Vidarbha had its own social reformers like Tukdoji Maharaj in 18th century and Gadge Maharaj in 19th Century. Gadge Maharaj took the broom to clean the villages he visited singing songs and spread the message of cleanliness in the nook and corner of Vidarbha region. However, with the advent of plastics, growing urbanisation, and critical livelihood issues, these teachings were long forgotten.

SMS had started with a survey in Wardha town in 2016 followed by a brainstorming workshop in early 2017. The workshop was well attended – NGOs like Chetna Vikas, Nisarg Seva Samiti, Anand Niketan, Community Poly-technique, Jan Heet Manch, along with members of Nagar Parishad (city council), students of Kumbhalkar College of Social Work participated in the workshop. This opened a collaborative zero waste management initiative in Wardha.

SMS ran an awareness programme in about 45 schools and 12 colleges in Wardha for three years. As a result, National Social Service (NSS) wing of the colleges, and students from Social Work Colleges campaigned door-to-door for segregation of waste. Posters were printed with the help from PHF and European Union. Composting through baskets was demonstrated in many schools that resulted in Kesrimal Kanya School, Nursing Hostel, New Arts College, International Hindi Vishva Vidyalaya, Gandhi Vichar Parishad, and Brahma Kumari Center started composting in their premises. Compost baskets were purchased by individual families (around hundred), and Wardha Nagar Parishad, too, bought compost baskets to distribute to sample households (around twenty-five).

During Swacha Bharat Abhiyan, Wardha Nagar Parishad gave the contract of door-to-door collection of waste to one private company, ‘Switch Gear Company’ in January 2019. The company used 24 vehicles for door-to-door collection of waste, and 3 tractors for picking up the waste from public places like vegetable market, sites near temples, schools or colleges. All the waste from the city is transported to a village named Injala where dumping station is developed by Wardha Nagar Parishad. With the intervention of SMS, 20 women waste pickers were appointed by the Nagar Parishad for segregation of waste and preparation of compost.

Nalwadi Breakthrough

Though SMS started with Wardha Nagar Parishad, and there was some response, it was not adequate. So, in mid-2019, SMS shifted its focus from Wardha town to Nalwadi, a satellite colony of Wardha town but with its own village panchayat. It also shifted it office to Gram Seva Mandal (GSM) premises, and roped in a new coordinator, Dr Priti Joshi, who has background in compositing and also use of compost in backyard garden. All these combined to break the ice.

GSM is a well-known Gandhian Institute. The institute conducts various courses for village development. GSM, along with the office space, provided a space to carry out composting and kitchen garden experiments.

Gram Seva Mandal has a very strategic location on the outskirts of Wardha belonging to Nalwadi Gram Panchayat. This satellite township has six wards populated by 12119 middle class people. SMS interacted with Nalwadi Gram Panchayat for almost two years on ‘Zero Waste Management System’. Two women councillors from ward no. 3 turned influencers but there was one more problem-the lack of space for setting up of waste management unit. Ms Karuna Futane, and Mr Atul Sharma, the President and Secretary respectively of GSM, who have been ever helpful, intervened, and GSM leased 1200 sq. meters of land. An agreement was signed between GSM and the panchayat, and work started on Nalwadi model from June 2020.

Two waste pickers were appointed to collect the fallen leaves from the streets. Households were convinced to segregate and hand over the leftovers to SMS team members. Two compost tanks were constructed for Gitai ward– one for kitchen leftovers and another for composting of leaf litter. And despite Covid 19 pandemic, the Nalwadi model is running without any glitch. Apart from wet waste, dry waste is segregated, polythene bags are washed, cut, sanitized, and turned into cushions, paper pulp is prepared from waste paper, and experiments are going on to make different products from the pulp.

The gram panchayat, too got motivated and developed “Oxygen Park” in the common open area by planting 100 hundred fruit trees. The Sarpanch has now agreed to construct waste segregation shed which will facilitate the waste management of all six wards of Nalwadi. In September 2020, Wardha Nagar Parishad sent two tractor trolleys of flowers and other waste generated during Ganesh Visarjan (immersion of Lord Ganesh idol) to the campus at Nalwadi for segregation and composting. Nalwadi model has at last made an impact on the main Wardha town.

PRAYAS – The efforts in Yavatmal

The Marathi Literary Festival (Marathi Sahitya Sammelan), was held in Yavatmal in January 2019, and this provided a good opportunity to show case the work, and also spread the message across the town. About 2000 people attended the conference per day which generated quite a good amount of waste. SMS pulled both the teams from Wardha and Yavatmal together, and along with eight local waste pickers set up the emergency unit. Around 300 kilograms of waste was collected, and carried per day to Lohara, the site provided by the Nagar Parishad, for composting. The media that had camped to cover the literary fest carried the zero waste management endeavours to all over Maharashtra.

SMS had moved to Yavatmal in 2018. As with Wardha, it started with a survey and found out that the waste pickers belonged to SC, Paradhi, Banjara and tribal communities. This was also the case in Wardha, too. In both the towns SMS helped 476 women (215 from Wardha and 261 from Yavatmal) to get the basic documentation. It also linked the waste pickers to health care (in Wardha with Kasturba Medical College and Datta Meghe Medical College, and in Yavatmal with NIMA, doctors’ organisation).

In Yavatmal, SMS got a good ally-PRAYAS, a group of doctors, engineers, professors and other professionals working on environment. Dr Kawalkar, the group’s chairperson helped organise a meeting with its members and post the meeting about 12 members purchased the compost basket and started terrace kitchen gardens. Prayas group also helps in awareness generation in Yavatmal.

Responding to Pandemic

The “zero waste” movement was gathering speed, and Covid 19 happened. Lockdown has thrown new challenges. Waste pickers stay in slums, and this put them in high-risk category. Besides, their activity needs home-to-home visits for waste collection, which was stopped. This is a double whammy-no livelihood and high health risks. SMS developed an emergency Covid Relief Fund with the support of PHF and distributed grains and other essentials to about 360 families.

SMS came out with a better solution to utilised the lock-down period. Providing and equipping the waste picker community with other and alternative occupational skills, it believed, would break the vicious cycle of caste based profession and poverty. SMS piloted a skill training programme for women waste pickers to make them social entrepreneurs. Compost manure has limited demand in the urban areas’ sans a few nurseries, and ornamental plants at household level. Why not go to the next level? Why not take plot of land on lease near the town, and grow vegetables? The idea is yet to seed but gaining traction, and perhaps in next few days the town’s waste will be recycled back to the town in form of vegetables.

SMS Wardha- Yavatmal team lead by Dr Priti Joshi believes that the journey of zero waste has reached the first milestone-acceptance by the community, the people, and the bureaucracy in two towns. This journey was possible because of the belief and trust PHF showed while the idea was in nascent stage. It was also made possible by NGOs like Gram Sewa Mandal, and Prayas, and the colleges and institutions that collaborated.

SMS has developed a comprehensive approach on waste management-the 3Es, economy and empowerment connected with environment. It has a multi-faceted approach – integrating waste pickers into formal waste management system, advocating with PRIs and local governing bodies to modernise the waste collection process, convincing the citizens to segregate the waste at source, and improve the working conditions of the waste picking people. On the other side, SMS works on health care and education of their children so that the next generation is not forced and compelled to take up waste picking profession as a default setting. SMS has formed the SHG groups of the waste pickers, provide them with training, and make them financially independent and get a sustainable income. The role SMS has envisaged for itself is as a training institute, mentoring and facilitating the waste picking organisation, and policy advocacy at the state level to bring about changes in the working conditions and integrating waste pickers in the formal waste management system.

Grow through what you go through

For SMS the journey of “zero waste’ began with Parisar Vikas in Mumbai. It has taken roots in two towns in Vidarbha, and SMS aims spread its wings in other towns. Through this endeavour, SMS has addressed SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) and SDG 13 (climate action). It now wants to move on and add to SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) by recycling urban waste on an impact level. The dignity of livelihoods, quality of life and sustainable cities and communities are interlinked and this march towards zero waste in Vidarbha has that SDG as the ultimate goal.

Working with women in Parisar Vikas is not about offering instant solutions but a holistic approach that gives them dignity of work, new avenues for livelihood, and an opportunity to overcome poverty. The Zero waste initiative has highlighted that the people from marginalised groups need not remain passive victims of poverty and human rights violations-they can successfully navigate their struggle to survive, and gain control over economic, social and political resources to lead a life of dignity.

*Jyoti Mhapsekar is a founder of Stree Mukti Sanghatan, Mumbai; Gazala Paul is the founder of Samerth Trust and consultant to Paul Hamlyn Foundation

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