Mangai Akka, who became the owner of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart in 2006, talks to me about how juggling the shop and her home has been quite the difficult task for her. By the time she sends off her eldest son and her younger girls to college, she says it’s really late for her to open the shop. This is something that she refuses to compromise on, even though her children are old enough to take care of themselves. To her, the children come first. Widowed at the young age of 24, Mangai Akka tells me her only ambition in life is to make sure her children have the best of everything and that they don’t lack for anything.
We are really excited to announce the launch of a free online information service that can help you find your neighbourhood scrap-dealer! By using this platform, you can ensure that your recyclable waste is being responsibly managed, rather than ending up in a landfill. Scrap-dealers have been collecting waste for decades now and have already formed links with recyclers across the country. This includes both local recyclers, as well as recycling hubs as far as Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi.
In the 1980s, waste-pickers in Colombia faced the most intense forms of social stigmatization and attack. A group of vigilantes, intent on ‘socially cleansing’ the urban landscape, began to launch targeted attacks on what they perceived as unclean elements — whom they referred to as ‘disposables’ — including waste-pickers, beggars and prostitutes. The violence reached a culmination in 1992, when eleven corpses of waste-pickers, harvested of organs, were found at a university in Barranquilla. To this day, the 1st of March is celebrated as Global Waste Pickers’ Day in remembrance of the massacre.
Official attitudes towards informal waste networks vary from city to city, running the gamut from outright rejection to models of partial incorporation. Martin Medina, one of the key authorities in the field, explains how public policy towards waste-pickers and scrap-dealers is generally reflective of societal attitudes towards them.
What do Indian farmers and rag-pickers have in common? At face level, both groups couldn’t be more different: one’s livelihood is based on producing crops, while the other earns a living by salvaging waste. But interestingly, both operate within sectors that are structured in a very inequitable fashion.
When I thought of the area ‘Besant Nagar’, one of the eastern most localities in Chennai city (sharing a border with the Bay of Bengal), I admit that what used to come to my mind was: a) the beach and b) Kalakshetra. Growing up in Chennai, those are the two attractions that I have identified the locality with. However, with the determined purpose of mapping kabadiwalla shops in the locality, I set out one weekend there and what I found surprised me more than I’d like to disclose.
I was recently reading a bi-weekly news roundup on waste pickers, and it occurred to me that the publication is a great way to help readers see the bigger picture. The free newsletter that I was reading is published by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The group — it is a global network, and not focussed exclusively on women — is dedicated to the working poor in the informal economy.
Chennai has a thriving informal market for scrap paper; most neighbourhoods have local kabadiwallas who buy paper from homes and other generators at the market price. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, since this paper is a crucial part of a much larger recycling network. It’s rather ironic to note that both the paper currency in our wallets and the scrap paper we sell to kabadiwallas carry value.
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 consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg.
Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.