The world is developing and expanding at a great pace. Alongside a multitude of positive effects of this development, there are several, very evident negative outcomes as well. Littered roads and ineffective solid waste management are some of them, especially in developing nations like India.
But as there is always some good to be found in every situation, slum-dwelling women, commonly referred to as ‘rag pickers’ are turning the litter issue of India into a means of self-sustainment. These women collect recyclable wastes from the roadside and sell it to feed their family. By virtue of necessity, these rag pickers unknowingly ensure that recyclables, which otherwise would be collecting along the roads and fields, contaminating the environment, reach the recycling process.
In India alone, there are approximately four million women engaged in this profession. They travel around eight to 10 km in the city in the wee hours every day, bend at least a 1000 times and collect 15-20 kg of waste with their bare hands which they then carry in large bags on their heads and shoulders.
In Ahmedabad alone, there are 40,000 such women collecting nearly 800,000 kg of waste every day. Due to their efforts, this large amount of waste reaches a recycling unit which translates to saving nearly 2,400,000 kg CO2 from being emitted into the environment. Because they do such a vital service to both society and the environment, we call them PM or Paryavaran Mitra or friends of the environment. Looking deeper into the lives of these PMs, we realise that they face many challenges and exploitation on all fronts, be it economic, social or health. Moreover, they do not get any love or respect from the society which they serve.
Paryavaran Mitra steps in to help rag pickers
To better this situation, an NGO named Paryavaran Mitra was formed at Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad in the year 2014. The aim of the NGO was to develop a self-sustainable business model to bring about holistic improvements in the lives of these unsung heroes of our society and fetch them respect, dignity and a fair remuneration.
Paryavaran Mitra organises rag-picker women in slums to collect waste daily and bring in a commercially viable volume of waste. It then employs an additional team of women to just do the sorting. With the desired volume and better quality of recyclables, the NGO sells it directly to the recycler, bypassing the whole value chain to achieve a better price for the material. This serves as the foundation for the fair value payment to the PMs and self-sufficiency of the whole business model.
In the last three years of operation, Paryavaran Mitra has established four centres—two waste collection centres, one sorting centre and one primary education centre.
Encouraging facts from the last three years of operation:
Served 300+ women of which 125 are regular ones.
Facilitated recycling of more than 11,00,000 kg of waste thereby saving nearly 40,00,000 kg of CO2 from emission and over 42,000 trees from being cut.
Distributed a sum of Rs 86,00,000 against the waste purchased from the sisters.
Meaningful engagements with institutions like schools, hotels, offices etc. to spread awareness about waste and its management and the phenomenal service our women are doing for the society and the environment.
Employment provided to 20 members.
Moreover, Paryavaran Mitra has contributed to a major increase in the income levels of these wonderful women. A majority of middlemen purchasing the recyclables exploit the rag pickers using rigged scales and offering lower than fair prices. The increase in income is due to the transparency involved and Paryavaran Mitra’s highly efficient business model.
As an additional means to improve the quality of life of the community, Paryavaran Mitra provides interest-free loans when a PM has some urgent need, as opposed to the exorbitant interest rates the other middlemen (dealers) charge.
Collaboration starts with respecting PMs and acknowledging their hard work
The main focus is on giving the PMs the respect every human being deserves regardless of their social situation. Paryavaran Mitra achieves this by doing small things with integrity, purity and love. Whenever a PM comes with her collection, she is graciously offered a place to sit followed by a warm cup of milk and a big smile. This gesture, in Indian culture, conveys the due respect and clearly shows that we hold them in high esteem. She sits on a chair under the fan and chats with the coordinator before leaving, so they feel the personal and emotional connection that conventional businesses lack. Coordinators of the facilities are women who talk to each and every PM and understand her problems.
Every Saturday, Paryavaran Mitra organises an event where PMs enjoy the process of interaction and sharing; they are given exercises to relieve them from joint pains; they play games and have a good and healthy meal. The intention is to give them a break from their routine and reasons to smile. These small gestures from the organisation create a bond with the PMs who gradually open up and share their problems, aspirations and dreams with the coordinators of the NGO.
The project also has 15 additional women from the slum community involved in art-based activities wherein they develop good artistic products out of the waste collected by our PMs. They are not only learning new skills by being active and productive with their time, but they also serve as an alternate source of income for them. This sub-project has been named ‘Gift of Change’. Currently, they are developing planters, pen stands, key chains, etc. Thus, any woman from the community working with dedication easily earns nearly Rs 3,000 per month.
Paryavaran Mitra offers only market rate to its members for their collected waste but does so with fair weighing practices and transparency. Because of this business model, the overall market rate has improved which means those women who aren't Paryavaran Mitra’s members are also getting better returns. Being a monopoly is not Paryavaran Mitra’s goal, rather it aims to improve the conditions of all the rag-picker women and their families. Its methods are forcing the competitors to raise their rates to stay in the business, which is working well for everyone because their businesses are running better and thus more profitable in the long run.
Paryavaran Mitra aims to scale up and open its own recycling unit as soon as it has enough raw materials from its own waste collection centres. This will make sure that every penny of the whole value chain is going to the rag-picker woman who deserves it the most.
Once there is a proven viable model, Paryavaran Mitra wants to share it openly throughout India. Its greatest ambition is to make this project, with its integrity and ultimate self-sufficiency, something that attracts international attention and influences impoverished countries globally in ways that fit their challenges.
A documentary depicting the struggle of rag-picking women and their young kids
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.