Marginalised Women in India are Entering Workforce, While Helping Save the Planet

 Anamma was born into a family of waste pickers in rural Bengaluru. She has picked waste since childhood, and was married to a waste picker at the age of 20. Whatever little they could earn from selling reusable scraps (from the waste they collected) hardly enabled Anamma and her husband to earn three square meals a day.

But a few years ago, Anamma joined Hasiru Dala, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation that works for the rights of waste pickers. At Hasiru Dala, Anamma received managerial training, and gradually went on to start a Dry Waste Collection Centre (DWCC), employing four waste pickers, and guaranteeing herself stable income through dry waste management.

When once she had to spend rainy nights under makeshift tents of sticks and plastic sheets, and scorching hot days searching for scrap, Anamma now has health care and education for her daughters – one of who is in college. She also built her own home and bought a truck with a bank loan.

Anamma (Image courtesy: Hasiru Dala)


Anamma is among the thousands in India who were keeping our streets clean, disposing of even hazardous waste, and yet never receiving appreciation for their work. In fact, since most waste pickers come from the economically backward classes and Dalit community, they are usually shunned from mainstream society and have limited interactions with people outside their own community. Even in slums, they are made to live on the periphery due to the notion that waste picking is an “unclean” occupation.

However, Hasiru Dala’s work (since its launch in 2012) has brought a change to the lives of more than 10,000 waste pickers in Bengaluru. The most prominent development was the city government providing identity cards to recognise the waste pickers. This gave them a certain status and legitimacy over time. They now have clients who give them tea when they visit the house, and once someone even threw a dinner party for them in their home. The waste pickers get a fixed monthly fee from the company as well as revenue from recyclables. Most of the waste picker-entrepreneurs now even file IT returns, thanks to Hasiru Dala. 

The significance of an ID card

And it is high time that waste pickers get their due too – after all, they are the invisible heroes doing grassroot-level work for environmental conservation. Studies have found that urban households in India generate over six crore tonnes of garbage every year, of which a whopping 85 percent is recyclable. Unfortunately, most of this waste ends up in landfills, polluting the soil, air and water. The recycling is made possible through the men and women who collect waste and take the effort to segregate it.

Yet, the unorganised nature of this sector denied a chance for decent livelihood for waste pickers – till now.

With organisations like Hasiru Dala, marginalised women across communities today command respect and a stable income. Many women are entrepreneurs, not just employees, and have even been able to open a bank account for the first time.

New Delhi produces over 9000 tonnes of waste each day. Close to 50% of this waste is segregated and transported by the more than 500,000 waste pickers that dwell within the city. Being one of the largest, Delhi's waste-picking community actually has a massive proportion of children below 14 doing this work as well. (Photo by Qari / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The value of bringing these women into organised labour force cannot be under estimated.

Udaipur-based NGO Aajeevika Bureau provides livelihood opportunities to the underprivileged, especially migrant workers. It also connects workers - both men and women - with better job opportunities by negotiating with job providers, and ensuring that they are not exploited by contractors. Most importantly, it provides a government-certified identity card so that these workers have access to all government schemes and initiatives.

Another such organisation is Jaipur-based Capacita Connect, a digital aggregator of the skills ecosystem in India that helps students from counselling to skilling and employment, and helps industries with the right manpower. Its flagship product Skill Connect is a digital platform to connect verified skilled manpower across industries. The employers need not worry about background checks, as the startup does Aadhaar verification for its users. It works with 38 sectors, including aerospace, agriculture, domestic workers, electronics and hardware, and healthcare, and focuses on women and the SC/ST and OBC populations.

Saving Earth is an Opportunity

While waste management is a huge problem, it is also a large opportunity in India. According to a report published by market research company NOVONOUS, India’s waste management market will be worth $13.62 billion by 2025. With the ‘Swachh Bharat’ initiative aiming at more public-private partnerships (PPP) with startups and NGOs working in the field, the domestic industry is estimated to grow at a rapid pace.

For instance, Saahas Zero Waste started as an NGO in 2001, but has evolved into a for-profit business now. The Bengaluru-based startup, founded by former journalist Wilma Rodrigues, has diverted over 15,000 tonnes of waste from reaching landfills, and currently prevents 25 tonnes of waste from reaching dump yards on a daily basis. Through PPPs with organisations like Deshpande Foundation, Jindal Steel Works, and Caterpillar Foundation among others, Saahas has been able to provide livelihood to hundreds of women across Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Surat, and Gurugram. They are now in charge of waste management processes, including sending the non-recyclable dry waste to cement factories.

Since most waste pickers come from the economically backward classes and Dalit community, they are usually shunned from mainstream society and have limited interactions with people outside their own community. (Photo by REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee)

On a smaller scale, Bengaluru-based startup GreenBUG, which makes environment-friendly dustbin liners, is providing livelihood to underprivileged women.  These bags -made out of newspaper- use maida paste (for glue) and jute threads so that these bags are easily decomposed, unlike plastic bags which will stay for centuries.

GreenBUG founders Jyoti Pahadsingh and Arun Balachandran have even designed a tool to produce the dustbin liners and trained underprivileged women to use it. (These women are free to decide how much time they want to invest in it, how many liners they would produce, where would they produce, and whether they would want to do it alone or form teams with other women.) They find women workers through NGOs like APSA, Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, Jeevodaya Rehabilitation Centre for Women, and Swabhiman Charitable Trust.

Women’s participation in the workforce results in economic and social empowerment at the individual, community, and country levels. The International Monetary Fund has stated that India’s GDP can grow by up to 27 percent with equal participation of women (as men) in the economy. If more women receive the regulatory nods to enter India’s workforce, not just the country’s economy but the planet’s lifespan itself will benefit.