Chennai waste pickers stare at uncertain future in the face of source segregation

Excluded from the formal waste management system, waste pickers of Chennai have seen a drop in their earnings and face many hardships.

Kumaran S has been collecting waste from spots in Zone 9 of the Greater Chennai Corporation for over a decade now. But like most other informal waste pickers in Chennai, he has seen a sharp fall in his earnings from waste,  as a large portion of what they collected and sold are now handled by conservancy workers with the Greater Chennai Corporation or the private contractor in charge in most zones, Urbaser Sumeet.

“I have been engaged in this work for over a decade. Things have never been as bad for us as it is now. During COVID-19 lockdown I largely survived on charity as we were unable to roam around to find recyclables. People were afraid. Now when we are able to return to work, the amount we earn is one third of what we used to make on a daily basis,” says Kumaran.

Compared to the Rs 600 that he used to make on average per day, Kumaran only gets Rs 150-200 now. “Most of the recyclable waste is taken away by the conservancy workers who store them separately and sell them to the kabadiwalas, leaving little for us,” he adds.

Collection of waste materials, particularly dry waste, has always created a conflict between the organised sanitary workers and the informal waste workers in Chennai, also referred to as waste pickers. Waste pickers remain an unorganised fringe group in the waste management system and therefore, especially in areas where segregation at the household level has picked up pace, they find themselves in a more vulnerable position.

Chennai waste pickers
Waste pickers have seen their incomes drop in areas where source segregation has picked up pace. Pic: Aruna Natarajan

Why are waste pickers in the lurch?

With an aim to decentralise the waste management system and reducing the amount of waste ending up in landfills, the Greater Chennai Corporation has been urging residents to segregate the household waste into biodegradable (vegetable peels, left over food, etc), non-biodegradable (plastic wrappers, milk covers, pens, etc) and Domestic Hazardous Waste (spray bottles, razors, medicines, etc) at the household level prior to disposal. 

This is also aligned to the mandate of the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, which says, “All waste generators shall segregate and store the waste generated by them in three   separate  streams  namely  bio‐degradable,  non  bio‐degradable  and  domestic  hazardous  wastes in  suitable  bins  and  handover  segregated  wastes  to  authorised  rag‐pickers or waste collector.”

Though source segregation has been mandated across the city, there is not enough awareness among the residents. Residents in many parts of the city dispose of all types of waste in one bin, making it impossible for the sanitary workers to segregate it in the e-vehicle immediately at the point of collection.
In the interiors of the city, though the conservancy workers collect the waste from door to door, they would simply dump it in the garbage bins, and the waste would reach the landfills without being segregated. At this juncture, the waste pickers played a crucial role in segregating the waste.

However, since the implementation of source segregation started picking up in some parts of the city following the takeover of waste management by contractor Urbaser Sumeet, the sanitary workers themselves, who are given e-vehicles for door-to-door collection, segregate the waste in the vehicle at the time of collection or later at nearby segregation points. While wet waste is processed at micro composting centres, the dry waste is  either recycled or sent to landfills.

Chennai e-vehicles for door-to-door collection of garbage
The BOV (Battery Operated Vehicles) do daily rounds in three shifts for door to door collection. PIc: Aishwarya Balasubramanian

Read more: Chennai is missing the most important piece in the waste segregation puzzle

K Venkateswar, a conservancy worker in Teynampet, who has been working with the corporation for over 12 years on contract basis, said that he sells the dry waste items like plastic bottles, which are collected in a separate sack, once a week or would be processed based on the instructions of the local sanitary officials.

“Charges incurred for maintenance of vehicles used in garbage collection and buying sanitary materials like brooms are not remitted to us. If the vehicle requires a repair, we have to pay for it from our pockets. Our salaries range between Rs 8,000 to a maximum of 16,000. How could we make ends meet? So, we meet such expenses by selling the plastic waste,” he said, adding that the practice of sanitary workers selling the waste directly has been common for years. However, the decentralised framework has made it easier for them.

This, on the other hand, has made life more difficult for waste pickers. 

“The civic body has been making attempts to remove the garbage bins in a few areas as part of the garbage bin-free city initiative launched in 2016. With the implementation of source level segregation, it has become much harder for us to earn an income through waste picking,” said S Ganesan, a waste picker in Kodungaiyur. Ganesan admits to having an alcoholism problem, as a result of which he cannot find a job elsewhere. “This is the only work I could survive on,” he says.

Some waste pickers however say that the garbage-bin free city initiative, akin to source segregation, turned out to be unsuccessful in many areas, where residents started dumping waste in places where the bins had been earlier. Ironically, it is this very lack of awareness among the residents that have helped these waste pickers survive.

“I am considering taking up any other work, as the amount of effort that goes into waste-picking is no longer worth it. I walk from Thousand Lights to Saidapet in search of waste. Previously we were able to collect enough in one area but now we have to travel long distances just to make the bare minimum. We don’t engage with the Corporation workers in any way, as we don’t want any trouble,” says Anbu T, who operates in Zone 10, also under Urbaser-Sumeet.

Kabadiwallas in areas like Saidapet say that they receive more dry wastes from the sanitary workers in recent days, but K Dhamodharan, a scrap dealer in Moolakadai, said that there was not a significant difference seen in who brings more waste.  

Who are the waste pickers?

According to P Srinivasalu, General Secretary of Chennai Corporation Red Flag Union affiliated with CITU, waste pickers in Chennai come from different backgrounds and operate in diverse contexts. Some hail from the same city, while there are others who have come from different districts within the state or from different states. 

“A few of the waste pickers  usually dress up well until the waste picking point, change to old clothes when involved in picking, then get back to decent clothing while returning home. These are the people who have found a source of income in waste picking but have not been able to tell their families how exactly they earn a living,” he said.

Some of the waste pickers are migrant workers from other states who have come to Chennai along with their families years ago. “These people do not demand money but only seek shelter and food for their family. Such groups of families hailing from Karnataka and Orissa are spotted in areas like Ambattur and Alandur Thoppu. They pick waste along with their families but do not receive any pay in return,” he added.

Kabadiwalas also take advantage of the precarious state of some waste pickers are alcoholics or drug addicts. They use the waste pickers to collect plastic waste and generate an income. However, they only pay them a bare minimum of Rs 100 to Rs 200 a day depending on the quantity of materials collected.

The Red Flag Union, which is comprised of sanitary workers attached to GCC, had earlier tried to conduct a survey of the waste pickers with an aim to organise them into a society/association. “It did not work for many reasons. Firstly, it is hard to identify those who work in disguise. For those who pick waste with their family members, there is neither proper identity proof nor are they willing to be identified,” said Srinivasalu, adding that it would be possible to enumerate and bring them under the formal sector only if the corporation took an initiative.

Read more: Can Chennai ever become a bin-less city?

Models for mainstreaming waste pickers

The Solid Waste Management Bye-laws, 2019 reads: “Establish a system to recognize organisations of waste pickers or informal waste collectors and promote and establish a system for integration of these authorised waste-pickers and waste collectors to facilitate their participation in solid waste management including door to door collection of waste”.

Similar attempts to integrate them into the system have been successful in cities like Pune and Bangalore. 

In Pune, the waste pickers union – Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) – has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). The workers there are engaged in the collection and sorting at the recycling separation facilities and the organic composting centres.

Bengaluru, which became the first city in India to issue official identity cards to waste pickers, after training them to work at recovery centres and also operate some of these facilities, roped in over 7,500 waste pickers into the system.

In a similar attempt to decriminalise their livelihoods and recognise the prosocial contributions of the waste pickers to the city, Corporation of Chennai in association with Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) organised two camps in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi back in 2014-15 to register the waste pickers and issue occupational ID cards. Accordingly, over 950 waste pickers were registered at these camps and over 300 waste pickers were surveyed. 

While the reason as to why it was not possible to integrate the above attendees, despite issuing the identity cards is not known, N Mahesan, Chief Engineer (SWM) of GCC, told Citizen Matters that as part of the socio economic survey, the local body is soon to conduct yet another enumeration of the waste pickers in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. “The survey is expected to be completed in a month’s time and we will formulate a plan to rope them into the mainstream,” he said.

With the recent budget of GCC aiming at reducing the waste sent to the landfill by using incinerators to dispose of 16,500 metric tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic waste and sharing the proceeds from the sale of recyclable waste sorted at Material Recovery Facilities amongst the conservancy workers, the inclusion of these waste pickers into the formal system would play a crucial role not only in improving their lives, but also in facilitating an effective waste segregation process.

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  1. S Raghavan says:

    In the era when technology has taken man to dizzy heights and when we look upon tomorrow to be digital and automation driven, to read an article on livelihood through Waste picking is stinking. When Centre and State Governments have come up with schemes to drive away poverty and disengage humans from handling trash that is injurious to health, why do people work for years and decades on waste picking? Like manual scavenging, waste picking should be made an offence and people who have been on it should be counselled to take up more diligent work.

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