Promoting Formalisation of Informal Waste Workers in Varanasi

Like the rest of urban India, informal waste workers in the city of Varanasi support efficient management of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) by supporting recovery of dry recyclable fractions. Improving the working conditions and income of the informal waste workers through formalisation can help in improving MSW management in the cities. Source segregation of MSW by waste generators can also help in improving the income of informal waste workers by increasing the quantity of recyclables sorted by them.

To complement the above-mentioned goal, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is supporting source segregation awareness activities and recently conducted a capacity building training for the informal waste workers of Varanasi. The activities were part of the NAMA Facility project ‘Waste Solutions for a Circular Economy in India’, also referred to as ‘Circular Waste Solutions’. The NAMA Facility is supported by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) of the United Kingdom, the Danish Ministry of Climate, Energy and Utilities (KEFM), the European Commission (EU) and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). The training witnessed the participation of 44 informal waste workers, including 19 women. It was noticed that there is a knowledge gap. The informal waste sector workers are unaware of recyclable material types like beverage cartons and Multi-Layered Packaging (MLP), which, if left uncollected, create a gap in promoting circular economy and contribute to increasing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Limited collection of MLP is happening currently because they are mostly found in a soiled state and need a lot of effort in collection and recycling. The low buyback price along with the limited number of MLP recycling facilities result in the low interest of the waste collectors. The situation can get better if more and more waste generators start source segregation and MLP recycling is incentivised.

Furthermore, it was also noticed that the participants had limited awareness about the social security schemes of the Government of India and the state government. This is mostly because of the limited sources of information and formal education among the informal waste workers. On the health and safety front, they were found to be familiar with protection measures such as masks, gloves, and glow-in-the-dark jackets. However, they mentioned that they hardly use them, as access to such protection measures is not regular.

Among other lessons, one that stood out is their interest to know more about the social security schemes and the process of availing them. Most of the challenges faced by the informal waste workers of Varanasi and the country can be solved by making them a part of the formal waste management sector. Especially, at this point when India is working towards the low-carbon transformation of its waste sector, the informal waste workers must be formalised. Many organisations as well as the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are already taking a lead in this by setting up infrastructures like Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) for dry waste segregation. Once formalised, the waste-pickers can be engaged in different roles in such facilities which are expected to grow in numbers in the coming days.

Additionally, as part of their formalisation, linking them with the social security schemes like Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana will help the workers and their families avail multiple health benefits such as health insurance. Further, formalisation will also lead to improvement of their financial status, as they would be able to open bank accounts and manage their finances well.

Also, if they wish to, as formalised workers, they would be able to form self-help groups that can avail micro-loans to set up their businesses and start their entrepreneurial journey.

In a nutshell, in formalisation of the waste workers lies the key to efficient climate mitigation and human development in India. And while this happens, it will be beneficial to find ways to provide the workers with access to functional education.

Considering that solid waste generation will only grow with time in India, there is a scope to create a formal workforce that will contribute to a circular economy. In conclusion, it can be said that linking the informal waste workers with the formal sector will lead to the setting up of a sustainable waste management system in India and promotion of circular economy.