Ever since the Government of India came out with the Solid Waste Management Rules (2016) and the Plastic Waste Management Rules (2016) which decentralized the process of waste management, especially in towns and cities, and provided more responsibilities to the urban local bodies (ULBs), there was a certain expectation of these legislations to improve the process of waste management across the country. However, as seen by Swachh Bharat’s initiative, Swachh Survekshan, which surveys the hygienic and cleanliness condition of cities across the country, there has only been minuscule improvement in the process, especially in metropolitan cities.

As per the 12th Schedule of the Constitution, which was added by the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992, it is the responsibility of the ULBs and municipal authorities to ensure the effective running of the process of waste management and maintaining the cleanliness of towns and cities. With a significant increase in the urban population across the country, there is a need for creating an efficient method for waste management. It is seen that the ULBs spend a majority of their funds (around 60% to 70%) on collection and segregation of wastes alone, while only 20% to 30% is spent on transportation and less than 5% is spent on treatment and disposal which is most essential step to prevent environmental pollution. There is further evidence that ULBs spend almost 30% to 50% of their waste management budgets on street cleansing alone. 

It is imperative that the process of collection and segregation of wastes must be streamlined by the ULBs in order to manage the scientific process of waste disposal. This is where the role of the waste collectors comes into the limelight with their contribution proving to be of utmost importance in the process of waste collection and segregation.  The current waste collection efficiency for major Indian metro cities ranges from around 70 to 90% while it drops below 50% for the smaller cities in the country. The recognition provided, along with the organization of these workers can improve the efficiency in the collection and segregation of wastes along with helping local governments perform better on the waste management front.

Formalization of the Sector 

Currently, waste pickers in the cities are a loosely based group of workers who are part of the informal sector of the economy. Along with the ones employed by the municipal corporations and authorities, there are quite a few waste pickers who indulge in picking scrap and selling them for money to earn their daily wages. These waste pickers do not get any benefits from the government and are left to fend for themselves in most cases. The incessant curfews and lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic have thrown their lives into disarray with no means of livelihood. Hence, there should be a formal structure of employment of waste pickers in the cities by the concerned authorities and ensure each of them are provided with daily wages and unemployment benefits. Civil society organisations can play a major role in this process as seen in Pune. 

The concept of a self-employed co-operative organization, ‘SWaCH’, is currently working in Pune. The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) entered into a MoU with the organization for the maintenance of over 8000 waste collectors in the city who are trained in waste collection and segregation to improve the efficiency of the waste management process. 

Recognition and Integration

It is not news that the Indian society does not accord the same respect for all types of employment and it is a proven fact that these waste pickers do not get the necessary admiration they deserve from either the State or the society as a whole. There has been cases of violence perpetrated against these social workers along with the constant harassment and humiliation meted out to them by the general public. It is also seen that even the government employed personnel are not provided with necessary protective equipment and gear when handling toxic wastes and are constantly exposed to shambolic hygienic conditions.

There should be a mechanism for the State to give its due recognition for these hardworking social workers and gradually integrate them into the society. Providing legal status and protection to the group of waste collectors and addressing any institutional and financial issues which are raised pertaining to the welfare of the workers should be of primary importance for the State to improve the current condition of the process of waste collection in the cities. An occupational identity and access to government welfare schemes will make it easy for local authorities to reduce its spending and get more people employed in the process of waste collection and segregation which would ultimately improve the process of treatment and disposal of wastes.

Monetary Compensation 

The waste pickers who are employed by the government are all daily wage labourers who depend on each day’s work to run their families. The others, not employed by the government, scrape through each day depending on the waste they collect each day to sell. It is known that every person responds to incentives and generally, the prospects of monetary benefits will attract better quality of work and engage more people in the field. The focus should be on incentivizing the waste pickers to perform better and do their work more diligently along with providing them financial security. 

Replacing the existing form of primary collection of wastes through street sweeping by house to house collection of wastes with a fee given for each house’s waste collection will help to create a stable financial situation for these workers. Direct cash benefit transfers and providing an extra monetary compensation for the best performing waste collectors under the ULB will help in making the process of waste segregation more efficient and streamlined in each city. This will also ensure an occupational identity for these workers and legitimise the role of the waste collector by the government.

Despite the Swachh Bharat initiative which was launched in 2016, there is a significant need for improving the process of waste management, especially in cities. The primacy of waste collection and segregation has emphasised on the need for waste pickers and collectors and their role in society. Addressing the issue at the onset of waste generation i.e. proper collection and segregation will help in allotment of more funds towards the process of treatment and disposal of these wastes. It is absolutely essential for the State and the general public to recognise the importance of these workers and help them attain a respectable role in society.  

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Post Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.