Authored by Lakshmi Pattabi Raman, Executive Director - Saamuhika Shakti; Mahesh Nayak, Associate Director, FSG; Maria Bystedt, Strategy Lead, H&M Foundation
Waste pickers are a critical part of every city’s solid waste management ecosystem and form the first leg of the vast recycling value chain in the country. With an approximate population of over 22,500 in Bengaluru, it is estimated that waste pickers recycle about 600 tons of the waste generated every day in the city, saving the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) over Rs. 49 crores every year. Despite the economic and environmental value they add to the city, waste pickers continue to remain among the most marginalised groups and worse, are largely ‘invisible’ to the residents of the city.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges faced by the community and worsened their living conditions even while these essential workers continued to work through the lockdown to ensure better living conditions for the city’s residents.
Saamuhika Shakti, an initiative in solidarity with waste pickers, aims to enable the waste pickers’ community in Bengaluru to have greater agency to lead secure and dignified lives. Acknowledging the vital work done by system actors such as Hasiru Dala, it has been designed to further build on their work. This, first of its kind project in India, brings together cross-sectoral partners, who are working in close collaboration with each other to address the urgent needs of the community.
The genesis of the project was from a realignment of philanthropic strategy by the H&M Foundation, who is funding this project. Recognizing that social problems are multi-dimensional and exist within complex systems, H&M Foundation pivoted from its earlier approach of supporting bi-lateral ‘single focus’ interventions to an innovative systems change approach supporting cross-sector collaborations, using the Collective Impact (CI) methodology. The CI approach which was pioneered in the USA has been applied in numerous projects there and is now being adopted in other countries. It is a highly structured collaborative model where a diverse group of actors come together in partnerships to solve complex social challenges. Their individual strengths, experiences, and resources are then channeled into mutual goals. Saamuhika Shakti is the pilot project launched under this new strategy.
The geographical scope of H&M Foundation has typically been countries where H&M Group has strong production linkages. As an important hub for the apparel industry in India, Bengaluru was a natural choice for the project.
The topic of circularity is central to H&M Foundation’s work, and in order to address the issue of recycling and waste management in India it is imperative to start with the most important, but also the most marginalised, actors in that ecosystem - the waste picker community. Bengaluru has been a pioneer in taking steps to recognise and include informal waste pickers into the public system such as enabling them to become entrepreneurs by running the Dry Waste Collection Centers (DWCCs) in the city. The presence of organisations doing stellar work to support waste pickers and the vibrant innovative ecosystem in the city also made Bengaluru an ideal choice to pilot this new strategy.
The outcomes we are working towards in the project were informed by a detailed study conducted by FSG, comprising in-depth ethnographic research with waste picker households, consultations with 22 global and national organizations working with waste pickers, and secondary research on the waste management ecosystem in Bengaluru.
Saamuhika Shakti covers both economic aspects such as livelihood, and social aspects around education, health, housing, WASH etc. with a specific focus on ensuring that women, girls and other vulnerable groups have equitable access to the outcomes. In addition, it will also focus on a critical aspect of bringing more recognition and dignity to the work of waste pickers.
Given the unique nature of the approach in India, we are ready to try innovative models, experiment, learn quickly and pivot as needed to fulfil the vision for an equitable world for waste pickers. As we have long-term commitment to create the change we envision, in the first phase of three years of the project, we want to generate strong evidence about the approach. This will inform both the second phase of our project and hopefully, encourage others to work with waste pickers across the country and replicate this collaborative approach to address the many complex social challenges India faces.
To break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty, make change sustainable and demonstrate a model that is scalable and replicable, a systems change approach is needed, one that requires working with diverse stakeholders be it Samaaj, Sarkar or Bazaar. At Saamuhika Shakti, we and our partners continue to explore different models, be it an innovation centric approach to finding disruptive, contextually adapted solutions for addressing problems in waste management and improving the livelihoods of waste pickers, with our funding partner Social Alpha, or by piloting projects where waste pickers can become a formal part of a circular supply chain of corporates.
We seek to extend this ‘Collective’ beyond our current partners and invite others to join us on this interesting journey.