waste pickers

Uplifting the marginalised: A social worker’s quest to empower waste pickers

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Nalini Shekar talks about her work, and how her organisation is helping change the lives of the waste pickers.
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Watching waste pickers collect waste from the streets is not an uncommon sight. But how often do we wonder about their lives and the challenges they face? Despite playing an indispensable role in urban waste management, waste pickers continue to live on the fringes of society and struggle to meet their daily livelihood needs.

A study estimates that there are 1.5 million waste pickers and itinerant buyers in India. Bengaluru alone has 15,000 waste pickers. The study further suggests that this informal sector retrieves and recycles around 600 tonnes of recyclable waste every day, which saves Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) around Rs.13.5 lakh per day.

Nalini Shekar—the co-founder of Hasiru Dala, which means ‘green force’ in Kannada—is on a mission to uplift the lives of waste pickers, who struggle to make ends meet without any guarantee of social security. Since its inception in 2011, Hasiru Dala has helped more than 10,000 waste pickers, empowering them to live a life of dignity.

The organisation trains and upgrades the skills of waste pickers, enabling them to become service providers. They are given training on organic waste management, event waste management, and a certification course on enhancing skills of small entrepreneurs in the recycling industry—in collaboration with Waste Wise Trust and Jain University. They also work with local, state and union governments to ensure the inclusion of waste pickers into the formal waste management of the city.

Apart from that, Hasiru Dala also started the Buguri Children’s Programme in 2017. The initiative works towards the betterment osf the children of waste pickers through various programs that make sure children stay in school, complete their education, and find nurturing spaces to grow.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Nalini Shekar talks about her work, and how her organisation is helping change the lives of waste pickers.

Your organisation has brought about an inspiring change in the lives of waste pickers. What inspired you to start this journey?

I have been working with waste pickers for a long time. I started the work in Pune but that was for a short period. Then I left for the USA where I spent 10 years. When I came back and started working in Bengaluru, I saw all the landfills had problems. While citizens started talking about the decentralisation of waste management, nobody spoke about waste pickers. Initially, I didn’t want to work in this field again, but then I said, how can I not? I wanted to make sure that waste pickers become a part of the solid waste management system in Bengaluru. That’s what inspired me.

Waste pickers face a lot of challenges in their daily lives. How does your organisation help them overcome those?

In 2010-11, it wasn’t very clear as to who owns the waste. Whether it is BBMP or the people who create it. But now, of course, there are orders from the court, which clearly state that it belongs to the municipality when it comes to the streets. But before such directives were issued, waste pickers used to get harassed a lot. It’s not like they were thieves. They wouldn’t work so hard if that was the case. That was a major issue.

That time, getting ID cards was the key. After a lot of work, the Occupational Identity Cards were issued with the logo of the city and the signature of the (BBMP) commissioner. That was the first time in the country when something like that had happened. In 2016, the solid waste management rule said that every local body should give ID cards to waste pickers. So, whatever we have done here, we have taken it to the national level.

Gaining the trust of a community is not an easy task. What did you do to earn that?

When you keep going and seeing them regularly, they will come around. This is exactly the experience I had in the 90s in Pune. That time, we formed a union (Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat—a trade union of waste pickers). The union used to give the ID cards and the local government used to endorse that. We were all young back then. We were 23 or 24 years old. I was going on a motorbike (to see them) all the time. So they thought, these young girls have come again; we can trust them. That’s how it started in Pune. We adopted a similar strategy in Bengaluru (with Hasiru Dala).

Many people have reservations about letting waste pickers into their houses. Some themselves feel uncomfortable entering other people’s premises. How did you convince people to do that?

We have been doing zero-waste events since 2011. We have created forums where they (waste pickers) can interact with others. Once a year, we host an event called Hasiru Habba (Green Festival). From waste pickers to other citizens, we invite everybody to these events. They get in the same queue for food, have similar plates, and eat together. But unfortunately, we haven’t been able to conduct it for the last two years because of the pandemic.

I remember, when the first ID card was given, Laxmi (a waste picker) was sitting next to the then (BBMP) commissioner (Siddaiah) in 2011. This had never happened in Bengaluru before where a waste picker sat next to the commissioner on the dais. The commissioner asked her, “Who gave you the ID card?” She said, “The commissioner gave us,” to which he questioned, “Who is your commissioner?” Laxmi responded, “Somebody called Siddaiah.” She didn’t even realise that it was Siddaiah sitting next to her and asking questions. In Hasiru Habba, we have ministers sitting on the dais with waste pickers. So, creating these kinds of forums give the courage to waste pickers and also brings inclusiveness at the administrative level.

Waste pickers are highly susceptible to health risks. What can be done to ensure that they remain safe and healthy?

When the first wave of COVID-19 happened, out of 35,000 people we work with, only five of them got the infection. They have so much resilience. Of course, there are inherent issues of waste; there is no question about that. But it’s not like they are completely susceptible to health risks—not more than you and I. They have a musculoskeletal problem because they walk miles and bend thousand times a day to pick waste. I don’t deny that. But generally, they are healthier.

You helped the victims of domestic violence in the USA. In India, you are helping waste pickers. What drives you to do humanitarian work?

I don’t think I have anything better to do… (laughs). I get a lot of energy from them. If I am low, and if I sit with 10 waste pickers, I get all the energy that I need. I feel I get more from them than what they get from me. So, it is a mutual thing. They are an extension of me. They are very strong men and women. They have to fight with dogs and pigs on the streets, but they still do their work.

You have worked for the betterment of waste pickers for a long time. What have you learned about their lives and struggles over the years?

They want a better future for their children but struggle with limited resources. Their aspirations are higher for their children than what they have for themselves. Everybody dreams of a permanent house where they don’t have to worry about getting thrown out. So, that’s the kind of security they are looking for.

Do you have any plans to expand Hasiru Dala?

We don’t expect Hasiru Dala to become a unicorn in the country. We want the concept of Hasiru Dala to be a unicorn. Before the pandemic, thousands of people used to come to us to learn what we do and how we do it. For us, that is more important than we going everywhere. We went to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Then we thought our branding is very strong in Karnataka, so we should focus here. There are so many waste pickers we have not been in touch with within the state.

What advice would you give to those who wish to contribute to society?

Just follow your dreams, your passion. It’s not going to be easy and there will be a lot of ups and downs. There will be a lot of people who will not like you but you should not worry about them. As long as the people you serve and the ones you work with are okay, you should not bother about the rest of the world. Be transparent and ethical in what you do so there is no issue.

  • Nalini Shekar is the co-founder of Hasiru Dala, a social impact organisation that works with waste pickers in Bengaluru. She aims to restore the dignity of waste pickers in the unorganised waste sector and improve their access to predictable livelihoods and social security for their families. In a career spanning 33 years, Nalini has won many accolades including the Kempegowda Award in 2015 from the city of Bengaluru. She was chosen as one of 100 women in India who make a difference in the society by BBC.Com. Recently, she was awarded “The Bengalurian of year 2020” by the Namma Bengaluru Foundation.

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