Category Archive : News

What Are Waste Pickers?

Waste pickers are the people who actually go through the garbage bins to pick out the things we discard as waste. These waste pickers- women, children, and men are from the lowest rung in the society, are a common sight in most cities and towns around the country. Waste picking is considered the most menial of all activities and it is people who have no other alternative that are generally driven to it. They contribute a great deal to waste management as they scavenge the recyclable matter thereby saving the municipality the cost and time of collecting and transporting this to the dumps

Some facts about the waste pickers:

  • The waste pickers and kabaris pick up recyclable waste, such as paper, plastics, metals etc. Waste pickers pick up and recycle almost 15-20 % of the garbage and are the backbone of recycling sector in Delhi.
  • For every hundred people in Delhi, there is approximately one person who recycles their waste.
  • In all they save the municipality at least 6 lakh rupees daily. They save municipal authorities 24% of their expenses by removing waste from the waste stream. A host of industries receives raw material collected by waste pickers, who thus contribute to saving resources
  • It is the largest informal sector that is cleaning up the city and saving us from the health hazard on a daily basis.

The Biggest Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management

As we know in Delhi there are three civic agencies to manage the city’s waste namely Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and Delhi Cantonment Board (DCB). These are the formal agencies created by the government, but there is also one informal agency doing the same work as these formal agencies. These informal sector workers are the waste picker community. According to one estimate, they pick 15-20 %of the city’s waste thereby saving up to 6-lakh rupees daily for the municipality and the government. But ironically their contribution in keeping the city clean goes unnoticed.

Almost all of the recycling is done through the informal sector, which comprises waste pickers, small buyers, a host of agents and finally the recyclers. The waste collected by the formal agencies directly goes to the landfill. The recyclable items collected from the Dhalaos by the waste pickers are used for recycling. The municipal agencies do not segregate the waste before taking them to the landfill. All the waste are mixed up and dumped in the landfill.

The thousand of waste picker collecting the waste is the backbone of the recycling sector. The informal sector of recycling works like a pyramid. The first layer comprises several hundred thousand men, women and children in urban pockets who mine garbage heaps and bins for recyclable wastes like plastic paper and metals. At the second layer comes the small middlemen, often poor themselves, who buy waste from the waste pickers.

They in turn sell the waste to the third layer, comprising large buyers who own huge godowns. Finally at the top, devouring all the labor and materials from below are the actual recyclers themselves. Most of the city interacts with the first and the second layer, whose labor actually propels recycling in India.

Health Problems

Common health problems faced by waste pickers as a result of their present working conditions are:

  • Physical injuries like cuts and pricks are common among them. This is result of poor segregation at source and the non-usage of protective gloves.
  • Heat during the summer months cause dizziness and nausea as the decomposed waste emits a strong smell.
  • Back pain due to manual work and pushing of trolleys is a problem faced by some collectors.

Assessing the health impact of the programme on waste pickers is a difficult task. A waste picker’s health is affected by a variety of factors like living conditions, eating habits, personal hygiene, etc.

Work Among Ragpickers in India

Mountains of garbage dump in New Delhi, the capital of India. A slum dwelling in the backdrop of sky scrappers in Mumbai, the industrial capital of India. Not matter where you go, the other side of the India reality stares you in the face. Children playing in what is a black mountain of garbage. These are the children of the Rag pickers. And this is a very common sight in major cities in India. India lives in many centuries at the same time.

Slums are everywhere in Indian cities and they stare you in your face. The sprawling shantytowns, with dwellings made of polythene sheets, cardboards, rags, tin, mud, occasionally bricks and practically anything that can be used in putting up a shelter from sun and rain, can be seen along the railway lines, along the boundary walls of factories and offices, along roads, in the river beds, along the open canals and large drains that carry the city waste, on any piece of vacant land often belonging to the municipality or to other public institutions.

These are slums home to the migrant laborers. Large scale livelihood based forced migration has been on ascendance in India over the last couple of decades and it will be a major phenomena to contend with even in the future. Since the economic liberalization in 1991, India is on a path of accelerated capitalist growth, which results in people flocking cities in hope of livelihood and better lives. The old Indian agragarian system is becoming obsolete and young people are migrating to big cities to earn a living and in hope to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. The “Indian Dream” or the Indian version of the “American Dream”. 

Recent decades have witnessed rapid urbanization all over India. During the period 1991-2001 the overall urban population growth rate has been 31 per cent. In comparison, the overall population growth during the same period has been 21 per cent, and the growth rate of the rural population has been 18 per cent. Large urban agglomerations have gone through particularly explosive growth. Largest 35 among these now account for 11 per cent of the total Indian population. 

You may ask who are these Rag Pickers, what are their stories and why should we help them?

Rag pickers are the people who scavenge through the colossal waste the city produces every day. This trash comes from homes, offices, small businesses, factories, shops and almost every other activity that a city engages in. Garbage dumps are often out in the open, by the roadside. Since the mechanized facilities for separating recyclable material out of this waste are almost non-existent, this task is accomplished manually by the waste pickers. They collect recyclable waste and trash from various places in the cities including plastic bags, plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal scraps, used bulbs and fluorescent tube lights, rejected vegetables, fruits and kitchen waste, old medicines, paints, chemicals, containers of different chemical products of factories, batteries, clothes and other objects soiled with bodily fluids like excreta and vomit. They even pick things from dumps of hospital waste. They collect anything that has a resale value or can be recycled. They have no protection gear on them while doing all this hazardous work. Their nose and mouth are not covered; they use their bare hands and walk in such dumps with bare foot. Even basic needs like facemasks, gloves, sticks and boots are unavailable to these workers who engage in an extremely hazardous profession.

There are no exact data available on how many rag pickers are there in India. Some reports suggest between approximately 2 to 2.5 million people engage in this profession, with over 300,000 in Delhi alone. The living conditions in the slums are inhumane to say the least. The waste pickers in Delhi are responsible for saving the government up to 6 lakh (600,000) rupees (12,000 USD) per day. Despite this, their work is not officially recognized or protected, and they undergo regular harassment at the hands of public officials and civilians alike. Their lack of recognition also prevents them from public benefits such as social security or healthcare coverage, and puts them at the constant mercy of private recycling companies.

It is in this backdrop that ACORN India is engaged in the process of building a membership base amongst the waste pickers so that they can secure protections to their livelihoods and persons.

ACORN India has won small yet significant victories that ensure better working conditions for these rag pickers. The rag pickers associated with ACORN India are now provided with masks to cover their faces, gloves and boots and sticks to scavenge through the garbage. ACORN India recently started organizing in the Dharavi squatter community in Mumbai. Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum where some of the largest recycling units of Mumbai are located. ACORN India has recently embarked upon two campaigns in Mumbai called the Dharavi Project and Waste Matters. The main goal of the initiave is to raise awareness about the plights of rag pickers and to generate funds to work towards the redressal. As part of the Dharavi Project, a documentary will be filmed which will be distributed in four languages in schools and colleges. One of Bollywood’s (Indian film industry’s) top music trio will do a music video for ACORN India about its work among the Rag pickers. The trio will also do a show in Mumbai on January 13th, 2009, the proceeds of which will go towards setting up an organization for the Rag pickers. The Dharavi project will bring in artists, school students and architecture students in direct interaction with the rag picker community.

Almost 35 percent of India’s population still lives on less than a dollar a day. Developing economies like India are emerging as the next frontiers of market expansion. The onslaught of mindless corporatism results in denial of basic rights like water, sanitation, education and health, right to land and a life free of evictions, and basic human dignity. It is in face of such big challenges that ACORN India is looking to mobilize these vulnerable communities to fight for their basic rights and in process empower themselves.



ACORN India came into existence when in March 2005 the stage was set by the work Community Organizations International was doing in partnership with the FDI Watch campaign in India. ACORN India FDI Watch seeks to scrutinize and challenge Foreign Direct Investment in the retail sector in India. ACORN India seeks to prevent large multi-national companies like Wal-Mart from entering Indian markets unless they guarantee protection of communities they affect; ensure stability of the existing small businesses and ensure livelihoods of small traders; guarantee fair wages, just working conditions and a right to unionize to all their employees; and ensure that a significant portion of the supplies comes from the Indian markets.

Since the economic liberalization in 1991, India has been on a trajectory of accelerated capitalist development with fast growing middle class consumers, which presents multi-national retailers and corporations with tempting opportunities for establishing presence in the Indian markets. India has not allowed, so far, vehemently anti-union, anti-worker corporations to establish their control over the market. But one of the last remnants of the Nehruvian socialist legacy is now in danger from the onslaught of the march of global corporatism. Countries like India are the next frontiers of significant market expansion for multi-national corporations; and these corporations are now starting to apply extreme pressure on the government of India for unfettered access. Indian market is facing an onslaught of both foreign and domestic corporate retailers, the most notable of which is Wal-mart.

Since 2006 we have built key relationships with leadership of political parties, trade unions, hawkers and farmers’ groups, peoples’ movements and the media. Over last two years ACORN India has built a coalition with community organizations, trade unions, peoples’ movements and NGOs, thus engaging progressively in poverty alleviation and urban development.

Through grassroots mobilization, documentation and research, and media advocacy, the India FDI Watch campaign has succeeded in bringing the negative effects of corporate retail expansion to the attention of state, national, and international media—and authorities.

This past year, ACORN India has broadened its focus to include concerns outside of corporate retail. One such concern has been the problems that face waste-pickers living in Delhi and Mumbai, whose lack of recognition from the government leaves them without social protections such as healthcare and education. One of the major constituencies with which ACORN India is establishing work are the waste pickers. It also puts them at the risk of harassment from security forces, civilians, middle men who sell their goods, and private recycling companies.

Waste pickers are workers who scavenge through the city’s garbage to sell it to the recycling industry. ACORN India is in the process of building a membership base amongst these workers so that they can secure protections of their livelihoods and persons. Community Organizations International has 1400 members among waste pickers.

ACORN India is also demanding that the Government of India agree to a Universal Health Plan to include the unorganized workers. We are proposing that our members can be covered by this policy using part of their membership dues as the premium.

With our initial successes in mind, ACORN India is eager to continue to grow its membership and to conduct larger-scale campaigns around all of the important issues that our members face—poverty; discrimination based on caste, gender, and religion; poor provision of services, and lack of government accountability.

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