DOING HER BIT M12 THE MAGAZINE
India Abroad September 25, 2015
Social activist Nalini Sekhar has been laboring to improve the working conditions of Bengaluru’s waste-pickers for the last four years. Her work she says is rife with “occupational hazards which energizes her to work with more vigor”.
She’s no stranger to these challenges. Before this she has
been working for 25 years with waste pickers in Pune and
Four years ago, Nalini Sekhar, then 50, co-founded
Hasirudala, an organization that works with the city’s rag-pickers of the city.
Today, Hasirudala has made the Bruhat Bengaluru
Mahanagara Palike issue ID cards to over 10,000 rag-pickers in the city, thus integrating them with the city’s solid
waste management system.
Now, the rag-picking ‘entrepreneurs’ of Hasirudala work
with 12,000 households and each ‘entrepreneur’ earns
around Rs 10,000 (approximately $150) per month.
It all began 25 years ago in Pune where Nalini worked
with the SNDP University in the field of adult education.
She found that the most marginalized among the urban
poor were waste-pickers, who were kept on the outskirts of
even the slums where they lived.
Nalini Sekhar, who describes herself as a a social entrepreneur and activist, explains how she integrated the marginalized, who have a special role in India’s economy, into
Working with the waste-pickers of Pune:
We were three youngsters (Poornima,
Lakshmi and Nalini) from university — one
of our major achievements was to unionize
the waste-pickers under the (Pune’s) Kagad
Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat. They did
not think what they were doing was work.
Even the ministry bracketed them with beggars in social economic surveys. Society also
looked at them as either beggars or thieves.
When we tried to start a union for them,
they were resistant; they couldn’t understand why three girls from the university
asked them to form a union.
First, one woman called Sumantai agreed
to join. Slowly, others also joined. On the
first day, we issued 1,100 ID cards. We never felt convincing them a challenge as we were in our early 20s; optimistic
and full of energy.
I came back from the US ( where she had moved with her
family for ten years and worked for the survivors of human
trafficking and domestic violence) to Pune, and continued
my work with the rag-pickers. Our major success was starting a national level network of rag-pickers — Alliance of
Indian Waste Pickers. We made the Maharashtra government recognize them. Their main grievance was that they
were not recognized and (faced) harassment from the
police and government officials.
Unorganized, unrecognized 35,000 waste-pickers:
Bengaluru is home to around 35,000 unorganized,
unrecognized waste-pickers, itinerant buyers and waste
sorters who make a living out of the 4,000 tons of solid
waste produced in the city. This informal sector is the
biggest contingent of waste managers inf the city.
If the government had to do this work, they would have
to spend at least Rs 80 crores (approximately $12 million).
Waste-pickers are reducing the burden of the government.
They are the silent environmentalists, but at the bottom of
the pyramid and get paid the least for their work.
( When she came to Bangalore in 2010) Bengaluru was
changing the way solid waste management system
worked… I couldn’t remain silent; I started working with
the citizens’ forum to look at what was good for the city and
also for the waste-pickers. Finally, Hasirudala, which
means green force, was born. We call the waste-pickers
green force because what they are doing is making the environment green.
ID cards and salary for the waste-pickers:
The first thing we did was to take an enumeration of the
waste-pickers so that we could bring them under one
umbrella and provide them with ID cards.
Because of my experience in Pune and traveling to other
places as part of the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers, in
four years we have unified 10,000 waste-pickers. Providing
them with BBMP ID cards (Bengaluru municipality) was
a major achievement as nobody harasses them now.
Okay, they have the ID cards and they are socially accepted; ‘what next’ was the question. They should have some
monetary benefits from picking waste.
We started looking for well-paying jobs for them in the
private space, in the bulk waste generating space. The government does not provide waste management to anybody
where there are more than 50 houses or more than 10 kilos
of wet waste. It is in this private space that we decided to
From working for waste-pickers to waste management:
Every day, the waste-picker weighs the wet waste, the dry
waste and the waste that goes to the landfill, from what she
collects from each household. Later on, the data is sent to
the household so that people reduce the the waste that goes
to the landfill. We make the households pay more for the
rejects so that it will make them conscious of what they are
doing and also environmentally conscious.
In the beginning, each household produced 340 gm of
rejects everyday. Today it has come down to 125 gm, by segregating waste.
Because the concepts worked for us, other citizens have
taken it to another 65,000 households (today, 550 thousand people in Bengaluru are segregating waste). Within
one year, if we were able to make more than five lakh
(500,000) people segregate waste, we can do this with one
crore (10 million) people.
Livelihood of waste-pickers the first priority:
We have so far given employment to 500 people with
Hasirudala as entrepreneurs. More than 300 children of
waste-pickers get a scholarship from the state to study.
Nearly 50 of our entrepreneurs have become mainstream,
with the corporation signing MoU with them directly and
not through Hasirudala.
Have waste-pickers become part of society?
If you ask whether the waste-pickers have become a part
of society, the (simple) answer is ‘NO’. It has not happened.
Will anybody invite a waste-picker inside their home and
give him chai No.
But it has happened in Pune. Some of the waste-pickers
tell me that where once they were not allowed inside the
homes to collect waste, today even the Brahmins have
started letting them inside their homes.
In Pune, the child of a waste-picker, who first went to college, has become a journalist. Another child went to
London to study catering management. So many children
are studying nursing, engineering, etc. You can say we have
integrated them into the mainstream in Pune but it will
take another decade to achieve that in Bengaluru.
One Hasirudala not enough. One Hasirudala cannot
meet all the needs of the city; you need many more
Hasirudalas. So far, we have had only individuals helping
us; we need more corporate participation in this venture.
We have the office space given to us by an individual,
Mindtree gives us free service in data management and the
apartments we service pay us. So, we are almost self-sufficient and are able to pay salary to all the people.
The biggest lesson learnt was ‘if you want to be right, you
will never be popular’. When you want to stand up for the
rights of people, you will not be liked, and we human
beings want to be liked.
This is a big challenge for me personally as one has to
Still, it has been a very satisfying and empowering journey and it energizes me. n
Shobha Warrier salutes a brave woman who
speaks for 10,000 of the marginalized in Bengaluru
Nalini Sekhar, below, co-founded Hasirudala, an organization that works with the rag-pickers of Bengaluru. Already 500 waste-pickers have been employed with Hasirudala as entrepreneurs.
COURTES Y, HASIRUDALA Defender of the silent environmentalists