Indian Scavengers Doing What Officials Can’t

Friday, January 21, 2011

In cities and in the countryside, in forests and on beaches, along roads and riverbeds, India is choking on garbage.

India generates more than 100 million tons of municipal waste a year. On a per capita basis, this is far lower than most developed countries, but the amount of garbage generated is growing fast. More problematically, very little of India’s waste is properly treated. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that only about 60 percent of municipal waste in the country is even collected. A far smaller proportion is recycled.

A few municipalities have made efforts to improve the situation. In some cities, governments have teamed up with the private sector or nonprofit organizations to improve waste collection and recycling. But such efforts are small and generally geographically restricted.

If there is any hope, it may lie – as with so much else in the country – in the nation’s burgeoning informal economy. Across India, an army of scavengers and housewives and small traders collect, segregate and recycle garbage every day. Their efforts, and the economy they have built around waste, may represent a model, or at least a foundation, for a solution to the nation’s rising tide of garbage.

India’s informal economy is huge. According to a recent study conducted by the International Labor Organization, an astounding 93 percent of India’s population is employed outside the formal sector. No reliable statistics exist to indicate how many of these jobs are in waste, but the numbers are certainly in the millions.

Martin Medina, an expert on the informal waste sector, estimates that scavengers (or ragpickers, as they are known in India) collect more than 10,000 tons of reusable waste across India every day. The economic value of their activities, he writes, is larger than $280 million a year.

Almitra Patel, an Indian activist who has been involved in waste issues for 16 years, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of urban waste in India is collected through the informal sector.

The informal waste economy is built like a pyramid, with ragpickers at the bottom, small traders in the middle and large companies that rely on recycled materials at the top. This system has its limitations, of course. But the web of transactions, pricing mechanisms and incentives that underlies the informal waste economy is nonetheless as sophisticated as that in any formal market.

Source: The New York Times (link opens in a new window)