Till last year, 24-year-old Arun Kumar, a school drop-out, would scavenge the streets of Bokaro and the town’s garbage dumps everyday, collecting plastic bags, bottles, paper, cartons and just about anything that would bring him money, selling them to the local kabadiwala. Working odd hours, almost 12-14 hours a day, he managed to earn up to Rs 800 a month. Kumar typifies the 5,000-odd faceless ragpickers in Bokaro city.
Every morning at around 8 am, Kumar cycles to the garbage dump on the outskirts of the city where he works, along with seven others, in the compost-making plant. At the yard, the team separates organic and recyclable waste. Around 10,000 kg of organic waste—essentially waste from kitchens—is processed everyday in the compost plant. Kumar finishes his day’s work at 5 pm everyday, and cycles back home. His monthly take is anything between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000. Along with this come benefits such as Provident Fund, health insurance, and provision for family pension, once he puts in seven years of service. A couple of months ago Kumar got married. “With a steady income I could think of having a family,” he says.
Hundreds of miles away in the town of Osmanabad, Maharashtra, every morning 40-year-old Maya supervises a 55-member, all-woman team of door-to-door waste collectors. With a handcart in tow, each woman typically covers 300 households every day. The women segregate recyclable substances like bottles and plastics, at the point of collection. The waste is then transported to the garbage dump outside the city limits. A compost plant—a first for the town—is expected to turn operational over the next two to three months to treat the organic waste. For Osmanabad, with a population of about 150,000 people, even door-to-door collection of garbage has a novelty factor.
Till around three months back, most residents were used to dumping household garbage on the streets or in neighbourhood municipality dustbins. “Residents appreciate our work of keeping the town and their homes clean,” says Maya, who has been scavenging for close to 17 years. She’s also better off financially. Maya now earns Rs 120 each day, as against Rs 70-80 earlier.
A factor common to the growing economic clout of ragpickers in these towns, Bokaro and Osmanabad, is the intervention of two organisations, Waste Ventures Charities and Waste Capital Partners, two arms floated by San Francisco-based serial social entrepreneur Parag Gupta.
Set up in 2009, Waste Ventures incubates solid waste management companies owned and operated by ragpickers. Gupta and his team of Indian and international experts, which specialises in different aspects of solid waste management, provide the blueprint to recycle, compost and earn carbon credits from waste. The idea is to handhold ragpicker-owned and managed organisations such that as a profitable business they can attract commercial investment.
Gupta’s logic is simple but compelling: 70% of waste in dumping yards is actually recyclable or can be turned into compost. By unlocking this untapped value, all the stakeholders—ragpickers, municipalities and commercial investors—can maximise their gains several fold. Early processing of this waste also helps to cut down on methane emission in dump yards. Through an integrated approach to solid waste management, one can also earn carbon credits. This perhaps explains Waste Ventures’ tagline—one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
At Osmanabad, Waste Venture went a step ahead. In January, this year, Gupta and his team convinced the local municipality of the benefits of an integrated waste collection, disposal and processing unit, owned and managed by ragpickers. Waste Ventures worked closely with the municipality in helping it float a tender for selecting such a company to manage the town’s waste. Jan Seva, another NGO that re-grouped ragpickers and sweepers into a cooperative, bagged the contract. “This is the first time in India that an organisation owned and managed by waste pickers will set up an integrated system for waste collection, processing and disposal,” says Gupta, speaking on phone from San Francisco.
Since May 2011 Jan Seva, along with Waste Ventures, is training ragpickers in facets of an integrated solid waste management organisation. Like Maya, there are over 100 ragpickers in the organisation who collect garbage from around 25,000 households in the town, segregate it and transport it to a dump yard.
There have been some teething troubles such as non-payment of dues by municipalities or delay in providing a site for compost facility, or resistance from some municipal workers to the project when Jan Seva refused to pay a bribe for its dealings with the municipality. Unfazed, Gupta has been meeting the shortfall in funds, which includes day-to-day operational expenses and the salary of 140-odd employees. That’s where Waste Capital Partners, the for-profit fund, comes in handy. For the last couple of months Gupta has been camping in the United States to raise capital for Waste Ventures. “We are currently raising Rs 3.8 crore—Rs 1.6 crore in equity and Rs 2.2 crore in debt financing—for the first three projects,” he says. Already over two dozen municipalities from across the country have shown interest in Waste Venture’s model.
An Old Hand
Gupta is not new to the social enterprise arena, having conducted due diligence on hundreds of social entrepreneurial projects during his stint at Schwab Foundation. He also floated two social entrepreneurial ventures in the past, before launching Waste Ventures.
He is convinced once Waste Ventures clearly demonstrates the value of the integrated approach to its stakeholders and its positive social and environment impact, everything will fall in place.
The way to go is pick on Tier II and III towns and cities where resistance to change due to entrenched vested interests is low, compared to major metro cities. Also, smaller towns are growing at, a faster pace and are yet to comprehend ways to tackle the growing volumes of garbage. “We want to be in 200 towns and cities over the next three years,” says Gupta. Already Nidan is trying out the Bokaro model in some other towns where it operates. “If the [Osmanabad] municipality goes back on its word, we will make the compost plant ourselves,” says a determined Sanjay K Gupta, tech leader at Waste Ventures.
Magsaysay Award winner Harish Hande, who is also on the board of Waste Ventures, has a word of caution: “Every city and town in India is unique with its own social and political set up. There is no cookie-cutter approach possible here. Only 40% of the learning is replicable. For each city there has to be a different approach.” That would mean broad-basing management bandwidth with a lot of local knowledge.
Gupta, who is comfortable speaking Spanish and French, is already looking beyond India’s boundaries with his model. A couple of months back, he deputed a summer intern to study the suitability of the Latin American market to the Waste Venture model. One just hopes, for the sake of thousands like Arun Kumar and Maya across the country, that Gupta is not spreading himself or his business ideas too thin.
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