Innovations in the Informal Waste Ecosystem in Chennai | Notes from the field

This is a post by one of Kabadiwalla Connect’s research interns, Sannihit, who’s a student at IIT-Madras. Sannihit has been involved in collecting data from the field.

Walking through the streets of Chennai, hunting for kabadiwallas, I realised it is a relatively easy job to find them. Interspersed between houses and shops, many of these ubiquitous kabadiwallas often go unnoticed. And yet, they are the core of the informal waste management sector, the silent engines that take part in the process of waste management in the city. And my intention is to understand this ecosystem.


As I conducted the survey, I asked myself many questions about them and was confronted with doubts and contradictions. In this day and age, we are encouraged to consume more, and new needs are being created all the time. We define ourselves by our consumption patterns but not in terms of how we manage our waste. And ironically, when there is system of kabadiwallas working with waste management, they are stigmatised for carrying out an ‘unclean’ job.
Mr Rehman, one of the kabadiwallas I interviewed, is quite content with his business turnover. However, he said, “We are a little uneasy when people not only refuse to appreciate our job, but actually look down on it.”


Others aren’t even happy with their business profit. A regular complaint voiced by many kabadiwallas is that as more of them have mushroomed around Chennai, each shop’s customer base has declined. Other factors have also affected their business. “Over the past decade, there has been a steady decline in paper consumption. Digitisation has reduced the paperwork”, complains Mr Rajakumar, the owner of Vanaparvathi Waste Paper Mart.


This may not be a valid argument, since waste generation in the city continues to rise at an alarming rate – plastic covers, water bottles, magazines, furniture, electronic items etc. Even newspaper subscription rates continue to rise. On the other hand, Mr Rajakumar could be correct – especially if the increase in the number of kabadiwallas is disproportionate to the increase in waste generation. It’s also true that there are no restrictions on entry and exit in this system, thus making the field very competitive.


Time and space are key determinants of business for the kabadiwallas. The location of the shop is of prime importance. This factor greatly determines profits as well as methods of waste accumulation. Kabadiwallas located in residential areas usually collect the waste using a mechanical tricycle. Their business is relatively small. However, shops along the main roads manage to tap the waste flow from commercial spaces and many own motor vehicles. Kabadiwallas are also very conscious of ‘decency’ in the area in which they operate. The owner of Selva Vinayaka Paper Mart told me that he doesn’t generally doesn’t collect waste from rag-pickers, since his shop is close to a residential apartment and many of its residents would object to their presence.


Apart from all these observations, one thought kept me occupied for a while – should a situation come about in which the government takes it upon itself to responsibly recycle the waste generated in the city, will the kabadiwallas be considered a part of its policy? Cities in the western world very efficiently manage their waste by employing the latest technologies. However, in India, the same methods might disrupt the livelihood of the small-time kabadiwallas. In the Indian scenario, we cannot fail to capture the local subtleties. New technologies must help the kabadiwallas reinvent themselves in an evolving city. The small-timers should be provided with a level playing field. They should be equipped with information to conduct their job more efficiently.  


A good economic return is a strong incentive for the kabadiwallas to actively expand their capacity. How does one help increase their revenue? On the other side of the equation, the kabadiwallas should equally be willing to adapt themselves. Will they accept changes that would unsettle their traditional work environment?

- written by Sannihit Bathula