Category Archives: Profile

Profile of a Rag Picker

This week with the help of Shalabh, aka wanderer extraordinaire, I went out to seek a few of the people who handle the trash around Delhi. That’s how I found myself sharing a bag of peanuts, served in a recycled magazine page, with Maya and her band of sweepers.

At first glance the street is a dump. Goats dressed in old sweaters and chickens wander between the bins and garbage bags on either side of the road, a dusty side street leading to a simple crematorium. At 2:59 pm the site makes a comedy of Delhi Waste Management’s sign claiming, ‘Zero

garbage zone 13 to 15 hrs.’ However on closer inspection Maya runs an ordered and cleanly operation. Segregated bags of waste are piled high and covered with a plastic sheet, waiting for the broker’s next visit. Although the day’s un-segregated waste is picked over by the goats, the garbage they dislodge is sure to be picked up soon. Maya sits close to the ground on a short stool. Surrounding her are five lounging men; aside from her husband, they are all sweepers hired by Delhi Waste Management, a city contracted company, to sweep the neighborhood streets and deliver their bags to the dustbins at this location.


Goats and chickens feeding on the day's trash.

About 65 years old, Maya has been watching over this street for 25 years.  She hails from a rural village just a few hours away from New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh. After marrying she moved to this slum community of Begampur Harijan Basti in Delhi. Before claiming her corner Maya jumped around the city, working mostly with garbage. She eventually struck a deal with the neighborhood surrounding Begampur. In return for keeping the road to the crematorium clean, she would be allowed to use the space to collect and segregate the area’s waste.

Mam Chand with a sweeper

This was no easy job. Maya says that back then the road was a favored spot for street shitting. “The crap was up to here,” says Maya’s husband Mam Chand, waving his hand by his knee. To break the neighborhood of its bad habits Maya took to sleeping on the crematorium road. When residents snuck out to take care of their business in the cover of the night, she chased them down. She remembers, “I carried a big stick with me and would chase them and then ask them to pick up their mess themselves.”  Although she still sleeps in her makeshift home on the road, after more than two decades of guardianship the street is clear and no one is breaking the rules. However, just off the temple’s main drag and outside Maya’s jurisdiction, we found enough fresh material to convince us that her rule is far from obsolete.

Garbage waiting to be segregated

In exchange for her commitment to keeping the road clean Maya is spared hassling by police and no one is allowed to cannibalize her business. Her presence on the block is so strong that when the municipality built cement dust bins to collect the neighborhood’s trash, they built them next to her operation. When the municipality and then the contracted private firm set up their operations they employed the expert, Maya, to ensure that the area around the dustbins remained clean.  This turns out to be a big task as Mam Chand pointed out to us. Although he had cleaned the bins at the other end of the road that morning, there was already a solid mass of garbage collecting around the half empty metal containers. He says the neighbors used to be better about their trash, but with the coming of plastic bags and other disposable packaging people stopped caring about the value of what they dropped, and where there dropped it.

Maya and her husband live a life with one foot in the formal sector, but with little security.  According to Maya, Delhi Waste Management currently pays herself and her husband a total wage of 1000 rupees a month. In addition, they make 2000 to 2500 rupees/ month selling plastic bottles and any other valuable waste they can segregate to a broker from the company. The going rate for an unbroken glass bottle is 1 rupee but they don’t often find such valuable material. Their money is made in thin plastic and plastic bottles, 3 rupees/kg and 50 paise respectively. There is also a little money to be made selling the meat of their goats. And there are the chickens, Maya pulled back the door of what I thought was a stack of card board to reveal a comfortably roosting hen.

Although the prices of materials ebb and flow with the market, Maya says that wages have remained about the same for the last 10 years, and in fact were lowered from 1200 when the city contracted out. Maya and her band of sweepers suspect that much more money has been allocated to them but that it is lost in “brokering,” as she diplomatically referred to Delhi’s corruption. All in all it doesn’t add up to much. Mam Chand says, “we make a total of 3 thousand a month, its barely enough to keep two people going on food, milk costs 22rps a liter so that tells you how well off we are.” Although goat’s milk might help Mam Chand save some rupees,

Maya sleeps outside to protect the street and her garbage.

there are also medical expenses to consider, like Maya’s appendix operation which cost them 75000 rps. And there is their one child, a widow supporting three children of her own. Their daughter lives in another section of the city but often returns looking for help. “You have to support your kids,” says Maya with a heavy shrug.

Maya and her men are just a small piece of the many layered and complicated system of waste in India. Getting paid a wage brings them closer to a stable way of life, but it’s hardly enough to get by. Any changes to the system, such as the collection of unsegregated waste for waste-to-energy programs, or even a change in habits like better segregation and consumption habits on the part of residents poses a threat to their stability.

Despite this Maya looks over her road with proud resolution. It is her space. One of the young sweepers joked that she was Panchali , meaning a wife to all of them.  Maya was quick to respond, “I live alone here in the night. You come here and I’ll tell you whose wife I am. I have a dagger and I’ll drive it through you.”  With her wit and command it’s not difficult to imagine Maya in another setting, manipulating her self-built corporation from behind an oak desk and far from the grandmother that squatted on the wicker stool before us. But even without the trappings of an empire, she is still the boss and her life will pass on that corner, amongst the trash that is her legacy.

Indian Pollution Control Association; Compost in the City

Ashish Jain oversees his fiefdom of worms from a leather swivel chair in a small office of a non-descript consumer’s market somewhere in the great urban expanse of Delhi. His NGO, Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA), was established in 2001 with the mission of improving standards of living in India and a focus on solid waste management and rainwater harvesting. With as many as 100,000 homes sending garbage to IPCA for vermicomposting, and a daily growing roster of costumers, Mr. Jain’s creepy crawly subjects are always working over time.

IPCA’s waste management strategy is simple: Cut costs and increase efficiency in waste collection through local segregation and vermicomposting. I recently visited one of IPCA’s three plants, all of them based in or around Delhi. Used to the toe to toe traffic and chaos of the city streets, I was surprised when I crossed the entrance of the two acre facility in Greater Noida to find an air of serenity about the place. A collector entered the compound behind us, calmly perspiring over the handle bars of his tricycle as he pulled in the day’s garbage. According to IPCA’s philosophy, the largest cost in a municipal waste system is transportation. To eliminate this burden, IPCA carries out collection and processing in 3 kilometer clusters, a distance which makes it possible to handle much of the waste with manual carts.

In the far corner of the plant another man squatted before a fresh pile of garbage three feet tall. He went through the waste one handful at a time, removing little plastic packets of single serving chewing tobacco and other inorganic waste. IPCA employs rag pickers to serve, for salary, the same communities that they had previously covered informally. The employees are given a uniform, health care, and a stable, minimum wage, income which, IPCA argues, is a path to self respect and greater recognition in the mainstream. Although IPCA says that it provides all of its workers with gloves, this man was not wearing any. Mr. Jain explained that despite safety training the workers, who have been handling waste for most of their lives, prefer to got without the clumsy protection.

As any home composter loves to tell dubious friends, composting doesn’t smell. Well, this is mostly true. The air just around the segregation piles wasn’t what I would call pleasant. But, then again it was better than the thick stink rising from the banks of the Yamuna River around my neighborhood. The long parallel rows of brick pits, where the worms quietly carried out their work, smelled mostly of earth and were lined with trees for protection from the rain and sun. Every so often the compost was monitored and turned, while staff lounged on a small patch of green garden, and white egrets perched in the trees and on aerating piles of waste. After a few weeks the odor free compost is removed from the pits sifted by hand, and bagged for sale.

A worker sifts the compost removing impurities like inorganic waste.

IPCA markets this product, Vermi Green, to a growing number of organic farmers in India. Any garbage which cannot be composted, or fed to animals on special farms, is sold for recycling or processed in house – IPCA currently operates two small paper and class recycling facilities. Finally a small amount, 5-7% of the waste, is sent nearby to the Gazipur landfill. Driving by the city dump on our way back to the office the first thing I noticed was a sudden cloud of hawks darkening the skies. Following their angle of flight, I finally saw the hills and valleys of a wasteland spread before me. Already over capacity, but with no other viable options available, this landfill is openly accepting Delhi’s garbage.

Mr. Jain’s is an impressive non-profit business model, with the money made from the garbage of wealthy families being reinvested to help serve poorer areas.  Yet IPCA faces limitations. The NGO’s reliance on composting as its major processing mechanism is hardly a new idea. In fact, it has been the method of choice in India for centuries. Modern times have seen many large composting facilities fail due to lack of maintenance and product demand. That IPCA has found a stable and growing market for its organic compost, higher priced than standard fertilizers, is the hopeful exception and not the norm. The land required for vermicomposting units, about 2 acres per 3 kilometers of collection, poses another problem, and is the only area in which the NGO requires government investment. Finding such unused space in urban India, and avoiding “not in my backyard” sentiments, is an acute challenge and can turn a low cost process into a highly expensive venture.

Finally, Mr. Jain says, IPCA faces resistance from Delhi’s major waste corporations, municipalities, and unionized street sweepers. IPCA is not just fighting the companies for market share. Amongst the rubbish the staff is jockeying with informal, public and privately employed individuals for valuable resources and the right to stay in the game for the long-term. Despite these challenges Mr. Jain is highly optimistic for the growth of IPCA, confident that it will cover 1 million customers—households,  neighborhoods, and companies–within a year. My parting gift from IPCA was a children’s book about Garbie Garbyhog, the very happy trash eating worm.

TERI; Policy and Actions

Given that my Fulbright research will be done in association with TERI and TERI University I think it’s pertinent to focus my first group profile on the think tank and its affiliated Master/PhD program. (I should also note here that I remain solely responsible for the content and opinions in this blog)

General Specs

While the organization, with over 900 employees, was founded and is based India, it maintains four regional centers and is well known in international climate change circles – Director-General, Dr. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, is the acting Chair of the UN’s Interngovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  TERI’s work with government bodies and corporations in India and its broad international presence across Europe, Japan, and the United States make it a key example of globalized research in policy and technology.

TERI University, where my affiliation is based, is an interesting model for those in academia. The university was deemed an academic affiliation of its own accord in 1998. However its initial funding and continued operations are heavily supported by the TERI Institute. Rather than the standard growth of a center for research inside a university, TERI U seems instead to be a product of the supporting think-tank. I won’t dwell on the topic so check out the websites and drag your lazy mouse google to find out more about the general make-up of TERI and TERI U.

(From here on out I will refer to both the institute and university as TERI.)

Waste Research

As in any good thought environment the ideas at TERI surrounding waste management range from the comprehensive and exhaustive to the impulsive and slightly impractical. Earlier this week one student admitted to me his dream of building a system of pipes from every apartment in a community unit. One pipe would be for biodegradable and the other for recyclable. Each pipe would lead to a separate bin in the center of the unit. The idea led me into a flashback of 1960s, or some long time ago before I was born and my parents were still cool, when pop culture thought suction based tubes were the transport mode of the future. In all seriousness the idea of separated garbage chutes for buildings is both simple and brilliant, though I remain less convinced by the idea of a full out piping system.

And, TERI has made significant contributions to waste management policies in India. TERI faculty members regularly contribute reports to the government’s environmental committees including those that preceded the country’s Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2000. In recent years they have also worked with the World Bank to analyze old dump sites for rehabilitation, produced a heath assessment of EWaste workers, and looked at waste surrounding a religious site in Mathura. The list of TERI publications and reports analyzing the technical environment for waste in India is extensive but the focus of TERI’s research lies primarily in the creation of energy from waste. One interesting project currently being implemented is the spread of TERI’s Enhanced Acidification and Methanation process which is being used to convert cafeteria waste into energy right at the source of production. This will be an interesting project to explore further for its potential across India and abroad.

Policy and Research Vs Implementation

TERI’s main outputs are research and policy recommendations. However one disturbing trend for the waste system in India is the lack of implementation and follow-up from these publications. While the government acknowledges the problems that exist and accepts that investment and must take place, actual change in the system on a local level is harder to find. When change is seen it is usually born on a smaller scale and expanded, such has been the case in Goa. In my research the challenge will be to walk the line between the need for research, data, and a major growth on a large scale and the reality of development.