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Santosh’s Story: Empowering Waste Collectors in India
Published 05/31/2013 by Global Communities
Once a street child, Santosh is now a leader in the new models of recycling and waste management being scaled up across Bangalore, India.
Santosh being interviewed by a local news channel. Watch the interview here.
Santosh, 35, is the Manager of Operations at the Domlur Dry Waste Collection Centre established under the Caterpillar Foundation-funded Trash to Treasure program in Bangalore. But Santosh’s experience reaching this position, like those of the 20,000 informal waste collectors that recycle 600 tonnes of waste every day in Bangalore, was fraught with challenges.
Like other waste collectors, Santosh comes from a very poor family. Poverty drove him, at age 11, to leave his family, live on the street and to begin working as a waste collector. He spent many years as an informal waste collector, combing the streets and making a living selling recyclables.
Then in 1995, Santosh met Mythri Sarva Seva Samiti (MSSS), a local non-profit organisation that addresses urban poverty and environmental issues. Since their inception in 1987, MSSS have focused on alleviateing poverty and improving the livelihoods of waste pickers by creating recycling programs that integrate informal sector waste workers. Global Communities began partnering with MSSS in 2009 under the Trash to Treasure program.
MSSS offered Santosh his first formal job at a recycling program they set up in a neighborhood of Bangalore. But organizations like MSSS and informal waste collectors found it increasingly difficult to sustain these programs when garbage collection started to become big business in the 1990s. As Bangalore’s populations began to grow, so did its volumes of waste. The local government began spending significant portions of its budget on trucking waste to landfills, without instituting any recycling activities. Today it spends $240 million on waste contractors annually.
For a few years, Santosh sought a different career and worked as a commercial driver, but he could not forget the waste collectors he had grown up with and their struggle to maintain their livelihood. So he chose to begin working in this field again. Santosh took leadership roles in securing arrangements with his fellow recyclers to provide collections services to apartment complexes. He persevered against social prejudices and injustices.
When Global Communities began the Trash to Treasure program we partnered with many local organizations like MSSS that had been struggling to set up recycling programs and integrate informal recyclers. Together, we helped our partners establish the infrastructure and legitimacy with the city government they needed to operate securely. We also formed Hasirudala, a city-wide association of waste collectors, to advocate for their basic rights and improve their living and working conditions. We also provided waste collectors with ID cards that sanctioned their rights to collect waste within the city limits. More than 6,000 IDs have been issued so far. In 2011, Santosh learned about Hasirudala and joined.
In August 2012, through Trash for Treasure, Global Communities helped MSSS and Hasirudala secure an arrangement with the municipal government of Bangalore to handle the management and operations at a newly established recycling center in Domlur. Santosh was selected to spearhead the project as Manager of Operations at the Centre.
The center has three vehicles for collecting waste from various apartment complexes, businesses and restaurants in the Domlur area. The dry waste is segregated at the center, and aggregated recyclable scrap is sold to wholesalers. The secret behind the success of the center, says Santosh, is the exceptional quality of the workers.
Santosh employs seven people for waste collection and segregation. Each with over 25 years of experience in the informal recycling economy, the sorters possess a tremendous knowledge of the numerous categories of recyclable materials and their value. Starting as a child waste collector in the 1980s, today, thanks to Caterpillar Foundation and Global Communities’ partnership, Santosh is a leader in the waste collection and recycling industry of his home city, Bangalore, where he will continue to be a leader of business and social justice.