Indian Scavengers Doing What Officials Can’t
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — About a hundred kilometers up the road from this town, there is a popular picnic spot. It is set in a small forest of casuarina trees, with good views of the shimmering ocean. It could be a scenic spot, but there is a problem: virtually every square centimeter of the ground in that forest is littered with a confetti of plastic bags, discarded plates, bottle caps and other waste.
This is a common problem around here, and indeed throughout the nation. In cities and in the countryside, in forests and on beaches, along roads and riverbeds, India is choking on garbage.
India generates more than 100 million tons of municipal waste a year. On a per capita basis, this is far lower than most developed countries, but the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. More problematically, very little of India’s waste is properly treated. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that only about 60 percent of municipal waste in the country is even collected. A far smaller proportion is recycled.
A few municipalities have made efforts to improve the situation. In some cities, governments have teamed up with the private sector or nonprofit organizations to improve waste collection and recycling. But such efforts are small and generally geographically restricted.
If there is any hope, it may lie — as with so much else in the country — in the nation’s burgeoning informal economy. Across India, an army of scavengers and housewives and small traders collect, segregate and recycle garbage every day. Their efforts, and the economy they have built around waste, may represent a model, or at least a foundation, for a solution to the nation’s rising tide of garbage.
India’s informal economy is huge. According to a recent study conducted by the International Labor Organization, an astounding 93 percent of India’s population is employed outside the formal sector. No reliable statistics exist to indicate how many of these jobs are in waste, but the numbers are certainly in the millions.
Martin Medina, an expert on the informal waste sector, estimates that scavengers (or ragpickers, as they are known in India) collect more than 10,000 tons of reusable waste across India every day. The economic value of their activities, he writes, is larger than $280 million a year.
Almitra Patel, an Indian activist who has been involved in waste issues for 16 years, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of urban waste in India is collected through the informal sector.
The informal waste economy is built like a pyramid, with ragpickers at the bottom, small traders in the middle and large companies that rely on recycled materials at the top. This system has its limitations, of course. But the web of transactions, pricing mechanisms and incentives that underlies the informal waste economy is nonetheless as sophisticated as that in any formal market.
I got an insight into the waste economy recently, when I spent part of an afternoon with a scrap dealer in the village of Periyamudaliarchavadi. His name was R. Sundar. He was 36 years old.
Mr. Sundar works out of two small sheds bordering a highway. The establishment he runs (he is not the owner) is one of hundreds in the countryside around here. Mr. Sundar estimated that he collected waste from within a two-kilometer, or just over one-mile, radius — a zone including five or six villages.
He has been in the garbage business for more than a decade. In many ways, his line of work offers a window into the rural economy and its changing patterns of consumption. As I watched villagers stream in from the highway, carrying bags of plastic and metal and bottles, Mr. Sundar said that the quantity of waste brought to him had greatly increased in recent years. The character of that waste has changed, too. He sees many more liquor bottles, and more plastic, than in the past.
Mr. Sundar collects his waste from various sources. Some of the people he buys from are homemakers selling household waste. Some are individuals who supplement their incomes by collecting garbage from highways and beaches and popular tourist spots.
One of Mr. Sundar’s chief sources of waste is a network of small shopkeepers he maintains in the surrounding villages. These shopkeepers — owners of tiny provisions stores, for example, or vegetable vendors — occupy a notch just below Mr. Sundar’s in the pyramid of the informal waste economy. Many of them accept payment for their goods in the form of metal or plastic or other recyclable materials. They operate, in effect, a barter economy that serves the dual purpose of processing waste and allowing impoverished villagers to make purchases they might not otherwise be able to afford.
Such networks represent a remarkable — if insufficient — alternative to government services. Mr. Sundar himself made that point when he said that he was “doing the government’s job” and called for state support of his profession. “If we didn’t do this business, the whole area would be spoiled,” he said. “People drink and throw away their cold drinks and water bottles. If we weren’t here, what would happen? We make a profit on the side, but we are performing a social service.”
Some countries, notably Brazil, have in fact developed programs to integrate the informal sector into formal state waste management activities. In India, too, there have been fleeting moves to recognize or at least stop discriminating against the ragpickers who play such a vital role in helping manage urban waste.
Bringing the informal sector into the formal economy is fraught with difficulties. Aligning the world views — and incentives — of ragpickers and municipal bureaucrats is a major challenge.
But the scale of India’s waste problems is such that the country needs every bit of help it can get. With its decades of expertise, with its existing networks of waste collectors and recyclers, the informal sector is a key partner in alleviating what is shaping up to be one of the country’s biggest environmental challenges.