Four years ago Ambika Ayappa, a 25-year-old waste picker, would wander around the streets of India’s software capital, Bangalore, rummaging through roadside garbage to find recyclables. At the end of each day she’d empty her sack of scraps, selling it to a dealer for less than $2 on a good day.
Now her work routine is a bit different. She wraps her best sari and puts on a cotton coat and her waste picker’s ID tag before setting off to her workplace – one of the municipality’s authorized waste collection centers, which she manages with her husband.
After a decade of waste picking she has joined Bangalore’s cooperative of waste pickers, Hasiru Dala, which means “Green Force” in the local language of Kannada.
The cooperative was cofounded by Nalini Shekar, a social worker who moved to the city in 2010 with plans to retire. Or so she thought.
But within a few months she was restless. The newspapers were replete with stories about the city’s proliferating garbage problem. Civic groups were discussing solutions.
“But no one was talking about waste pickers,” she says. “The city has 20,000 waste pickers. They are a highly skilled workforce who needed to be included, not further marginalized.”
She knew that retirement would have to wait: Hasiru Dala was born to integrate waste pickers into the city’s solid waste management system.
The work began with visits to slums, inviting waste pickers to be part of the group. Two hundred waste pickers, men and women, quickly joined. Soon, the numbers began to swell. The group raised 30,000 rupees ($485), with each member contributing 50 rupees (less than $1). Uniforms, weighing scales, and other essentials were bought, and the workers were trained.
Being incorporated into mainstream waste management meant the waste pickers would no longer wander the roads and landfills. They offered their services to bulk generators of waste – apartment complexes, hotels, and office buildings.