Saamuhika Shakti: Empowering Bangalore waste pickers to live dignified lives

A collective impact effort, the first of its type in India that provides informal waste pickers a chance to live safe and dignified lives, with particular emphasis on gender and equity.
12 Jul 2023
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Waste pickers and sorters working hard to extract recyclable value from the waste we throw out (Image: Vinod Sebastian/ Saamuhika Shakti)
Waste pickers and sorters working hard to extract recyclable value from the waste we throw out (Image: Vinod Sebastian/ Saamuhika Shakti)

According to the World Bank (2020), 49% percent of the urban population in India, resides in slums. The urban slum dweller’s desire for a better life has only been partially fulfilled, as people continue to fight for necessities such as clean drinking water and adequate toilets. The rapidly rising population of urban slums places additional strain on existing facilities.

Against this backdrop, WaterAid India launched the WASH for Health and Dignity of Waste Pickers project in Bengaluru, Karnataka in January 2020, as part of the collective impact program, Saamuhika Shakti. The initiative was aimed at providing waste pickers with water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), as they typically comprise the poor and marginalized sections, who are frequently disregarded in the municipal governments' development plans.

By imparting education to the informal waste picking community on hygiene practices, it aims at promoting positive behavioral change. WaterAid India prioritizes hygiene education, especially menstrual hygiene management (MHM), among adolescent girls and women.

“Waste pickers, despite the critical role they play in ensuring that our habitations are livable, are largely invisible. They collect and manage waste and eke a basic living in the process. Their living conditions are often appalling with basic services such as assured access to safe drinking water and toilets missing. Saamuhika Shakti is a unique, collective impact effort supported by the H&M Foundation, involving eleven organisations all seeking to make a difference in the lives of waste pickers by providing them with opportunities to lead a dignified and secure life. Each organisation in the collective focusses on a specific area of their expertise that could potentially help transform the lives and living conditions of waste pickers and their families,” said VK Madhavan – Chief Executive, WaterAid India.

The program is significant because it demonstrates how fulfilling a basic need, such as ensuring water supply or toilet, may drive positive change in the community. With the help of timely interventions, 3274 waste pickers and their families were able to access water, while 1335 waste pickers and their families were able to access sanitation facilities. About 106 WASH Champions were developed and 8 O&M Committees were formed, comprising a total of 103 members, among which 54 members are women.

Women residing in such slums can access community toilets because of the project. They would further be able to save time, effort, and money by having improved access to water at home rather than travelling long distances daily.

Lakshmi, cement colony resident in Bangalore recalls having to leave the office to discharge herself. “If it’s a busy hour we’d (female workers) have to walk almost a kilometer, to a public toilet,” she said. Even then, there would be no way for them to wash their hands in the Dry Waste Collection Centre, where Lakshmi and other women work. The need to relieve oneself would be distressing since there would have to be a search for an adequate location, in a public environment yet hidden from view.

The women were overjoyed the first time they used the toilet facility. Lakshmi further added “It’s such a relief now. We no longer control ourselves or walk all the way to look for a suitable place. It has been particularly helpful for the women during their menstrual cycle. Now we can clean ourselves, clean our hands after using the toilet. It has made a difference in our lives.”

Vimla's tale is shared by many women in Cement Colony. Most women experience PMS because of poor menstrual hygiene. Urinary tract infections affect women in silence. "Having a toilet with running water has changed our lives," stated Vimla, cement colony resident.

There is no need for them to trek a long distance to relieve themselves in the mornings or evenings. Young girls and women who were made aware of the importance of menstrual hygiene through regular lessons on menstrual hygiene management have now began cleaning and drying their menstruation cloths hygienically before use.

Menstrual health and management for female waste workers continue to be overlooked in policy initiatives. While menstruating, many women engaged in rubbish picking or domestic chores, utilize cloth pieces as absorbents. They often work long hours without adequate access to WASH facilities. Through the Saamuhika Shakti project, young girls and women who were made aware of the importance of menstrual hygiene through routine lessons, have now begun adopting improved menstrual hygiene practices.

The goal of this intervention is thus not only infrastructure but also—and most importantly—community capacity building. Educating the community, particularly its women and girls, about the importance of water, sanitation, and hygiene, as well as their rights in connection to it, is an important element of this effort. A clean environment, as well as access to water and clean toilets, not only meets their fundamental requirements, but also gives people hope for a more dignified life.

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