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I have a dream that one day women rag pickers can come together and form an association for a ‘plastics bank’, where we can get the profit the ‘seth’ (merchant) makes. If women gain the knowledge of this business they can become owners instead of only being garbage collectors,” says Laxmi Kamble, the remarkable leader of Dharavi Project for ragpickers in Mumbai, who is a ragpicker herself.

Kamble has thought it all out: To get women to obtain training to identify the plastics – according to her, there are around 107 kinds of plastic waste that only an A-1 ‘karigar’ (skilled worker) can determine the correct value of – and their correct price in the recycling market, teaching them to negotiate a good deal and giving women a safe space to keep their children while they go out on the streets to pick and sift through garbage.

Estimates of the amount of garbage generated in a metropolis like Mumbai is 7,000-10,000 tonnes a day and a little more than half of it is collected by the civic body – the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). While this goes to a dumping ground in Deonar in North-East Mumbai and two other smaller landfills in Mulund, the dry waste – a humungous amount of plastic, paper, glass, electronic scrap, metal scrap and thermocol – makes its way to recycling centres.

If a ragpicker can collect an average amount of dry waste worth around eight rupees (depending on the weight and quality of the plastics) she can then sell it to a middleman for `10. He, in turn, sells this for `15 and by the time it reaches the big factory where it is processed and recycled, its price can be between `18-25. The profits in the entire business run into crores, but there is no systematic study of the amount generated.

I have a dream that one day women ragpickers can come together and form an association for a ‘plastics bank’, where we can get the profit the ‘seth’ (merchant) makes. If women gain the knowledge of this business they can become owners instead of only being the gatherers of all this garbage

– Laxmi Kamble

A typical area has around 10 small dealers who buy the garbage from the women and sell it to two-three bigger dealers. The waste goes through elaborate processing – plastics are sorted out and segregated by colour or by the hardness and quality and converted into pellets by machines. This is then washed and sent to a processing unit where it is converted into little plastic pellets and eventually made into toys, bottles, caps, bag handles and other sundry items.

Kamble believes that if women get a space for sorting out their collection they can sell directly to the companies. Acorn India, which launched the Dharavi Project in 2008, has begun cautiously, making 500 members. “At the moment, we have only given them identity cards and run programmes for their children. We are exploring the situation, seeing how best we can help them,” says Vinod Shetty, the organisation’s Director.

A ragpicker can hope to make anything from `100-150 for four hours of work. However, women who are employed in garbage collection godowns get `110 for nine hours of work – from 9am to 6pm, with an hour off for lunch. Sharada Jogandale is employed in a crushing unit in Dharavi. She wants to leave her job for something more lucrative. The long hours, the dust and heat of the airless unit and the supervisor who barely allows them a break, has aged her beyond her 25 years. The women and men, have no safety equipment, no gloves, no masks, no shoes. There are battles with ailments like asthma, along with the usual skin infections and respiratory problems.

Despite the miserable working conditions, ragpickers have been trying to organise themselves to get a better deal. Several Mumbai-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work with them. Parisar Vikas, the project for women ragpickers launched by Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) in 1997, pioneered the organisation of groups of ragpickers and trained them to segregate waste, sell the dry waste and convert the wet (bio-degradable) waste into compost.

Today, Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangh, a separately registered NGO, has a membership of over 3,500 women across Mumbai and Pune. It has formed cooperatives of women ragpickers that collect garbage from housing societies, hospitals and malls. Jyoti Mhapsekar, the driving force behind SMS, has brought a strong environmental concern to the work, along with an understanding that their getting together would eventually empower them.

Geeta Seshu

Women’s Feature Service

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