From waste pickers to artisans: Glimpses of a social enterprise near the Ghazipur landfill

Women waste pickers in Gulmeher are trained to make eco-friendly handicrafts, in a bid to promote environmental sustainability.

27-year-old Salma was a  waste picker at the Ghazipur landfill before she came to Gulmeher, a social enterprise established in 2013 that aims to provide an alternative livelihood to women waste pickers in that area. They train these women to create eco-friendly products using discarded flowers, fabric waste and recycled paper. Till date, Gulmeher has already re-used around 15 tons of discarded flowers and more than two tons of fabric waste. 

Salma, donning a red dupatta, smiles as she meticulously picks broken flower petals with a brush, pasting it on a diary before her. It has taken her long to learn this. She quit several times, claiming initially that she was not being paid enough to learn such a complex  process. However, after Gulmeher’s attempts at convincing her, and also ensuring a fixed monthly wage, Salma not only continued the work, but is now one of their oldest, and most hardworking employees. 

“I shall be writing my 10th standard examination this year. Gulmeher supported my education. I have built a house here in Delhi, as well as back in my village in Bengal, all because of this,” she says. 

Supporting waste-based livelihoods

Ghazipur landfill, Delhi
File pic of the Ghazipur dump site, covering 70 acres and described as the “Qutub Minar of waste” has caused ecological damage worth Rs 142.5 crore according to one expert study. Video grab from

Visiting the Gulmeher work site is akin to stepping into a world riddled by contrasting realities – on one hand, a mountain of garbage in Ghazipur stands tall at 213 feet, equivalent to the size of London’s Tower Bridge and projected to exceed the Taj Mahal’s 239-foot stature within a year. A mere 50 metres away from this dump, a parallel reality: a small double-story building houses 30 women actively engaged in their efforts to combat the waste mess that has been collectively generated by the national capital of Delhi. 

Read more: Ecological damage, land lost: The cost of Delhi’s toxic landfills

About 400 families reside in close proximity to the dump, often between the Ghazipur landfill in East Delhi and the city’s major wholesale meat and flower markets. The residents predominantly consist of migrants from West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, earning their living from the thousands of tons of waste dumped in the area.

In 2013, the former infrastructure and financial services giant IL&FS established a waste-to-energy plant in Ghazipur, aiming to efficiently divert waste from landfills. However, this initiative posed a potential threat to the livelihoods of numerous waste-pickers. In an effort to offer alternative means of support to the affected communities, the company, via its CSR arm, the Nalanda Foundation, initiated Gulmeher.

Turning waste to art

Kamala Joshi, the centre in charge of Gulmeher tells me, “We started in 2013. There is a slum here, where people were mostly waste pickers. Gulmeher started with around 5 to 10 women, today there are around 35 women associated with us. We decided to assist them in learning how to make eco-friendly crafts from waste materials.” 

“There is a flower mandi [market] nearby, from where we sourced the waste flowers. It was really difficult initially to make the women sit for a few hours. We also had to ensure that they were well paid,” she explains. 

The women are trained to hand-craft stationery products, home decor and gifting items. From tea coasters, file folders, frames, diaries to paintings, every piece at Gulmeher is moulded out of scrap material. As the training continued, the products started coming out with more precision. Additionally, on their rooftop, one finds their Rang Birangi unit, where the women specialise in creating natural colours from flowers and vegetables. These colours are chemical-free, eco-friendly, and safe. 

A handmade card by the women of Gulmeher
Pic: Nuzhat Khan

Changing lives

29-year-old Shabana said she and her family were “kachda-walas” [waste pickers]. Shabana lives in a jhuggi nearby. She has been associated with Gulmeher since the beginning. While her eyes are fixed on the leaf she is trying to cut into a beautiful shape, she tells me, “Earlier, we used to live in really poor sanitary conditions. After joining Gulmeher, my life has been transformed. We not only live in better conditions now, we also earn well, learn new skills. My husband and I recently turned our jhuggi into a pucca house. My children are also going to school.”

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This short piece was produced as part of her work under the Fellowship.

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