December 2022

From invisible to Bengaluru’s invaluable

By BBC Media Action 


“Audiences are at the heart of everything we do”


At BBC Media Action, we constantly remind ourselves of this mantra, when designing our interventions. BBC Media Action’s Pathway to Respect, Identity, Dignity and Empowerment (PRIDE) project is aimed to shift age-old perceptions of people towards informal waste pickers that resulted from years of conditioning and discrimination based on their work, class and other factors. The challenge is enormous.

Our formative research to understand the perceptions of Bengalureans towards informal waste pickers revealed that most people in Bengaluru do not recognise the “humans” behind the process of waste management. There also exists a high degree of stigma toward informal waste pickers. The study pointed out that even though the waste on the streets is visible and of concern, informal waste pickers are virtually 'invisible' to most people. More than half of the people who participated in the formative research said, “informal waste pickers are dirty and shouldn’t be allowed inside residential building complexes”. The COVID-19 pandemic further strengthened these negative perceptions.

In a country with a history of discrimination, bringing a change in mindsets is uphill work. The project turned to Professor Judith Butler to understand why some lives are valued and others are not, and how marginalisation is contingent on rendering social groups virtually invisible.

Based on the reading of Butler and our formative research, the project’s Theory of Change established that the invisibility of informal waste pickers would end, if their lives and work were to be properly valued. This involved a reframing of the work of waste pickers as involving special skills and productive labour essential for the city’s survival. It was critical to establish the interconnectedness between the work of waste pickers and the general population of the city, for the latter to value the life and work of waste pickers.


Invisible to invaluable: #Invaluables social media campaign

To address these challenges, a creative strategy was designed to lift the shroud of invisibility from the lives of waste pickers and highlight their contributions. A multi-phased, multi-platform social media campaign was designed to reach social media audiences in Bengaluru. The first phase aimed to create public awareness about informal waste pickers and their work by humanising them. It positioned them as ‘invaluable friends’ that the people of Bengaluru never thought they had. A social experiment film was created to help Bengalureans make the journey from seeing waste pickers as ‘dirty’, to recognising them as doing important, skilled work that contributes to society and the environment. The social experiment was conducted by Kannada actor Radhika Narayan.

The campaign focused on the interdependence of citizens on informal waste pickers who,  through their labour, ensure a cleaner city. Therefore, every citizen owes them in some way. The call-to-action of the social experiment film was to nudge people to join the ‘#Invaluables’ Facebook group. Cricketer Robin Uthappa, Kannada actor Swetha Changappa and comedian Shraddha Jain (@aiyyoshraddha) amplified the campaign.

To further reinforce key messages around the identities of informal waste pickers, a series of social media content was created for audiences in Bengaluru. Responding to the deadly second wave of the pandemic, the content strategy was pivoted to address how the people of Bengaluru, by their simple actions like correct disposal of COVID  waste, could help informal waste pickers stay safe.

The impact monitoring conducted after the first phase of the social media campaign showed an increase of 6% in awareness among Bengalureans about the identities of informal waste pickers. The analysis also showed greater discussion about informal waste pickers, their work, and place in society among those exposed (60%) to the content, compared to those not exposed (49%). It also provided directions for subsequent phases of #Invaluables, pointing:

  • To create a clear distinction between the formal and informal waste pickers in order to bring an attitudinal shift towards informal waste pickers
  • To build an identity of waste pickers by personalising their contributions in order to build respect
  • To focus on building “interconnectedness” and “appreciation” by highlighting their contribution in the efficient running of the waste management system
  • To humanise waste pickers and their struggles so that focus shifts to their work/ profession instead of their appearance, clothes, etc.

#InvaluableRecycler: Reframing identities of informal waste pickers

With the impact monitoring of #Invaluables showing a shift in awareness about informal waste pickers, strategically, it seemed the right time to reframe the lives of informal waste pickers and associate positive keywords for their work and contribution. Hence, the next phase of the communication put a spotlight on the role of the skilled work of informal waste pickers in waste recycling and saving Bengaluru from mountains of waste — (re)positioning their work as skilled and professional.

 Thanks to the pandemic, numbers became a scary harbinger of the worst possible news. But, BBC Media Action came across a number that was ripe with meaning, purpose, and proof of the contribution of informal waste pickers. This number is 38,32,50,000 – the number of kilograms of waste that  is recycled by informal waste pickers of Bengaluru every year, or the amount of waste that  is stopped from reaching landfills because of their hard work. While numbers are generally considered cold and boring, this number provided a window through which one could unpack the lives of informal waste pickers.

 Using this, BBC Media Action created a song and music video to start the work of shifting perception of the people of Bengaluru, and create awareness about the work and contributions of informal waste pickers. The song is a tribute to them. It celebrates what they do for India’s Silicon Valley and its environment. It highlights their role in the city’s circular economy, and the skills and expertise they bring to the profession of waste picking. The song was created by BBC Media Action in collaboration with Bengaluru-based singer, musician, and composer Vasu Dixit. It also features rapper Karthik Gubbi, comedian Shraddha Jain along with a few of the thousands of informal waste pickers of Bengaluru. It was further amplified by Vani Murthy, a city-based environmentalist; comedian Sonu Venugopal; singer Mythri Iyer; dancer Aanchal Chandana; and percussionist and musician Giridhar Udupa. Following the launch, the song was also broadcast on Radio One and Fever FM 100 times.

To support the Happy Number music video, BBC Media Action created a series of influencer-led social media content to raise  awareness about different segments of informal waste pickers. Called Spot the Recyclers, the video series delved deeper into the identities and skills of different categories of informal waste pickers. Rapper Karthik Gubbi created a reel about street waste pickers. Using her humour to explain how itinerant waste buyers go house-to-house purchasing waste such as  old newspapers, plastics, clothes, etc., comedian Sonu Venugopal produced a reel about them. In the third video, Vani Murthy interacted with Mansoor who runs a Dry Waste Collection Centre in Bengaluru.

#WashTheDabba activity was created around washing plastic food containers so that they can be easily recycled by informal waste pickers. The idea was to sensitise the general public that there are simple doable actions that can contribute to the Happy Number – 38,32,50,000. The influencer-led #WashTheDabba activity was amplified by Vani Murthy, Sonu Venugopal, Vasu Dixit, Karthik S Gubbi, Mythri Iyer (Facebook and Instagram), Aanchal Chandana and Giridhar Udupa.

A collage of two people in a kitchenDescription automatically generated with low confidence

So far, the two phases of the social media campaign have reached an estimated 5.1 million people in Bengaluru i.e., nearly 39% of the city’s total population. The campaign has attracted 9.3 million views where 2.7 million views were recorded alone on the Happy Number music video. On YouTube, audiences watched an average of 84% of the total duration of the music video. 

Anecdotal evidence shows that the music video resonated with the informal waste picker community too. “I am very happy today, we have seen songs in films, but today Vasu made our life into a song”, said Indra, an informal waste picker at the launch of the music video. Several members of the community were seen dancing to the tunes of Happy Number during events and workshops organised by Saamuhika Shakti partners.

Way forward

The impact monitoring of the #InvaluableRecyclers social media campaign is currently underway. However, analytics and comments received on the campaign show a positive momentum among audiences towards the issues of informal waste pickers in Bengaluru, which needs to be sustained. 

It shows the potential of media and communications in initiating conversations on important civic engagement issues. Through the next phases, BBC Media Action will aim to amplify the Happy Number further and wider in the city by integrating the concept with on-ground and other activities. The focus will continue to be on the role of informal waste pickers in waste recycling as this is critical to ensure they remain at the centre of the discourse on issues like just transitions and climate change.

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