Nalini Shekar is tackling the systemic problem of waste management in India by facilitating the provision of employment ID cards and forming collectives of waste pickers that run decentralized waste management centers, resulting in improved social rights and dignity of labor for waste pickers, increased livelihood opportunity within the sector, better gender equity among the workforce, and widespread adoption of environmentally sustainable waste management practices.
The New Idea
Waste collection in India has historically been run by a community of waste pickers that have been marginalized by the caste system. They continue to face intergenerational disadvantages, being excluded from the formalized workforce, resulting in low household income as well as poor access to healthcare, housing, and education. Nalini Shekar focuses on addressing the hidden forces for why waste management is a major issue in India by focusing on uplifting the community of waste pickers.
Nalini sees waste pickers as the strategic stakeholder for solving the problem of waste management. While many waste management solutions address the processes around the collection and treatment of waste, Nalini’s model focuses on the historical issues that have disadvantaged this community of people. She co-founded Hasiru Dala in 2011 with the mission to create an ecosystem where waste pickers live with dignity and are recognized as professional workers. Hasiru Dala in Kannada means “Green Force.”
Hasiru Dala is building an ecosystem where waste pickers can thrive through a four-step process. Firstly, facilitate each worker’s registration so that they can receive a government-issued employment card that secures their social rights and employment status. Secondly, train them in waste segregation practices where they become “green-collar workers” that learn environmentally sustainable processes for collecting and segregating waste. Thirdly, form collectives where waste pickers become active problem solvers and entrepreneurs that run decentralized waste management centers that are income-generating enterprises. Finally, create access within the government infrastructure to schemes and policies where waste pickers can receive better housing, healthcare, and education.
This four-step process has created an ecosystem where waste pickers are integrated in society and have become active changemakers. They have ownership of each of their zones in terms of waste management, and advocate and implement environmentally sustainable solutions locally, as well as taking on the responsibility of building income generating waste management enterprises.
The uniqueness of this innovation is the intersection between environmental sustainability, the creation of livelihoods, and the institutionalization of workers. Through Hasiru Dala, Nalini is addressing a plethora of issues around livelihoods, climate sustainability, gender equality, and urban waste management. She now helps train local governments and other organizations across India in implementing this model at a larger scale.
The social problems of the caste system in India have had lasting effects far after its abolishment in 1948. Waste picking was a practice reserved for the lowest castes and social classes. On account of this, waste management has been a problematic area in India with low government recognition and worker rights in communities that work in this system.
Urban India generates 62 million tons of waste annually, with a prediction that this will reach 165 million tons in 2030. Of this, 43 million tons of municipal solid waste is collected. 31 million tons are dumped in landfill sites and only 11.9 million tons are treated. Waste pickers play a crucial role in the process of waste collection and management, however, due to a lack of social rights and government support, waste is usually dumped in massive landfills rather than segregated and treated. This has resulted in high amounts of methane emissions and increased diseases and health ailments of waste pickers that reside around these landfills.1
A report by IIT Kanpur (2006) found that effective collection and treatment of the daily waste generated in the country could provide major economic upliftment and employment opportunity for the 4 million waste pickers in India.2
Many attempts at addressing issues related to waste management have been made; however, they have primarily focused on the methods of collection and treatment of waste and have not adequately dealt with the social issues that are faced by the waste picker community. This has created a fractured system where waste mafias monopolize the infrastructure and knowledge for generating revenue from recycled waste, denying waste pickers the worker rights for the waste they collect.
Nalini believes that the power to facilitate transformation and brings a systematic change in the waste management sector is held within the collective community. In this case, waste pickers have been the community that implements and runs waste management operations in India. As they have been historically marginalized for so long, waste management systems have not adapted to the rapid increase in population, urbanization, and waste generation. Due to the lack of inclusion of the waste picker community and the social stigma around this practice, reactive mechanisms were created in terms of garbage dumping in landfills and waste pickers living in settlements around it.
Hasiru Dala is working to rebuild this ecosystem where the community can be provided a platform to solve these waste management problems and receive the social rights and access they deserve. Hasiru Dala started off in 2011 advocating for every waste picker in Bengaluru to be issued an occupation identity card where they can now have access to social security benefits, as a first step to them being an active citizen that is integrated with the larger society.
In order for waste pickers to become changemakers in the ecosystem, Nalini realized that occupational cards were only a first step. Moving towards increasing the scope of livelihoods, she began to train and facilitate sessions for those waste pickers, in most cases women, in the environmental and business best practices of waste collection and treatment. These women waste pickers became skilled in the segregation of waste, formed into decentralized collectives of waste management units within the city, and then began to advocate within the city zones on best practices of waste segregation and waste management.
This decentralized approach of zonal waste management units, resulting in waste picker entrepreneurs advocating behavior change, enabled a change in policy across Karnataka adopting the “two bin, one bag” approach. Through the local implementation of waste pickers, every house began to segregate their waste as “wet” and “dry” in two separate bins, and all biowaste in a bag that was disposed of. Waste pickers began to be agents of change that redesigned the collection of waste and began to form collectives of decentralized waste management centers that composted wet waste, recycled dry waste, and formed a value chain around the waste that they collected.
This resulted in profit generating enterprises being established and a massive reduction of the waste that would otherwise be sent to landfills and cause carbon emissions. Waste pickers began to be formally recognized for their profession, earn money, and pay taxes, allowing them to create opportunities for their children that they never received.
At a macro level, Nalini saw that the complete integration of waste pickers in society would require greater access towards housing, finance, healthcare, and education. She then began to play the role of a trainer and advocate, facilitating the process for workers to access low-interest loans for houses and education and to get access to the social security policies in place by the government. This began to create large-scale integration into society, breaking social barriers that existed for generations and increasing social mobility for waste pickers.
The process of decentralization has allowed this model to scale and have a deeper impact – not only for waste pickers, improving the dignity and social status for their work – but also empowering them as changemakers who could collectively solve problems around waste management. For example, Kumuda is a women waste picker trained by Hasiru Dala that is now pioneering the door-to-door collection of waste for over 15,000 households in Bengaluru. She has a team of over 10 people, bought three garbage trucks, and generates over $20,000 annually in revenue through waste treatment.
Nalini initially focused her efforts mainly within Karnataka, achieving ecosystem shifts through the women collectives that began to create a greater advocacy strength in redesigning policies that were in place. Between 2015 to 2017, Hasiru Dala pioneered major shifts in government policy: waste pickers were given full operational ownership of waste management in Karnataka, amendments to the Solid Waste Management rules were passed in 2016 requiring household waste segregation, and door to door collection rules were passed in 2017 by the DWCC.
Nalini now focuses her effort towards nationwide adoption of this model; she is consulting with the government of Rajasthan and Maharashtra in implementing this model and has trained thousands of government officers and other organizations looking to adopt this practice. Under Hasiru Dala, over 10,000 waste pickers have been institutionalized and formed into collectives. Through a “training the trainer” approach and forming strategic partnerships through the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers compromising of 35 members, the impact and reach go beyond 100,000 waste pickers.
Nalini measures outcomes through the direct reporting from each collective of waste pickers in terms of jobs created, growth of income, the number of women employed, the quantity of dry waste recycled, and wet waste composted. She is now focusing on nationwide advocacy, partnering with media centers that have released over 100 media coverages, expanding from household waste collection to now working with corporates on their Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and replicating the model she created in Karnataka both in terms of ecosystem and policy shifts into more states.
Nalini grew up in the city of Bengaluru where she got a first-hand preview of the issues around management collection and social issues related to waste pickers. She co-founded Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a union of waste pickers with over 10,000 members in Pune in 1997 that went on to be the first member of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers in Asia.
After setting up KKPKP, and then migrating to the United States, she spent over a decade working extensively on the issue of violence against women and children that gave her a deeper understanding and context of the key role that community groups play in tackling systemic problems.
Arriving back in India and witnessing again the issues faced by waste pickers in the city, with the systemic lens of how focusing on community development could address some of the systemic issues around waste management, she founded Hasiru Dala and refocused her energy towards improving the dignity of labor and formalizing worker rights for waste pickers in Karnataka.
In a career spanning 33 years, Nalini has won many accolades including the Kempegowda Award 2015 from the City of Bengaluru. She was chosen as one of 100 women in India who make a difference in society by the BBC. Most recently she has been cited as Namma Bengalurean of the Year 2020 for her work in the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Nalini oversees the work of the Hasiru Dala team, guiding policy and advocacy and overall work on the ground.