Chintan: An NGO working towards improving lives of urban waste pickers

As the world debates issues of poverty, climate change and more, a larger problem has been quietly collecting under our noses, one landfill at a time. It is estimated that a time will come when the world will be enveloped by mountains of suppurating waste — unless we immediately reduce what we throw away, and improve how we dispose of it. This problem has been exacerbated in India, where uncontrolled urban development and lack of a scientific waste management policy have led to mountains of waste and methane-oozing landfills that are waiting to explode. Also, its 1.5 million waste pickers work in uncertain and hazardous working conditions, are forced to pay bribes simply to do their job, and suffer violation of their basic rights on a daily basis. This is what makes the work of Chintan — the Environmental Research and Action Group, so crucial in today’s context. This Delhi-based NGO works with urban waste pickers, who, even though they are crucial stakeholders in the country’s solid waste management process, remain unrecognised and undervalued by the government and society at large. 

Chintan addresses these issues from several different angles. “We actively work to train waste pickers to segregate and compost waste,” says founder-director Bharati Chaturvedi.“The idea is for them to upgrade their skills and be hired by neighbourhoods, schools and other community living spaces to manage waste.” This is in line with Chintan’s premise that waste segregation is best done at the neighbourhood level. “We presently work with some resident welfare associations in Delhi to manage their waste in this way,” she says. This has an added bonus: the waste picker remains a key stakeholder in the process of waste management and, in fact, this opens up a new livelihood opportunity for him/her. Second, Chintan operates a variety of educational support programmes for children of waste pickers in their own communities. The combined effects of poverty, ill health, low literacy levels of their parents and the social stigma attached to them even in school, ensure many waste picker children are unable to perform satisfactorily in school. “Our intervention enables many of them to stay motivated in school instead of dropping out to work alongside their parents in the landfill,” says Chaturvedi. Chintan also engages in advocacy for policies that ensure social and environmental justice, and has been part of committees that have resulted in inclusive new rules pertaining to waste, like the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011.

Presently, the NGO works in Delhi-NCR, although it has trained waste pickers in several states. “Delhi, with its landfills getting larger every day as waste is still not segregated at the policy level, is our focus,” says Chaturvedi. The need for a change in waste management practices is urgent, she says. Else the biodegradable component in the capital’s landfills will generate enough methane to set off fires such as the one in Bhalswa last year. The solution lies in generating awareness and taking responsibility for what we throw. “If we start segregating waste today, and compost its biodegradable component in community compost pits or use techniques such as biomethanation to generate methane and fertile slurry from it, we’ll see a reduction in landfill sizes within one year,” she states. Also, Chaturvedi points out that it is imperative for the government to adopt a systemic approach to waste management (which would involve understanding waste flow patterns, segregating waste and reducing what we throw in the first place). 

Chintan has 40 staffers and an annual turnover of Rs 50 million. Ironically, the Swachh Bharat slogan has remained more a political tool than a call for action, as the NGO remains strapped for funds to extend its work. “We need about Rs 600,000 to create awareness campaigns about the need to reduce plastic and packaging waste,” says Chaturvedi, who believes there should be a sin tax on non-biodegradable packaging. In the coming years, she wants to increase the scope of their education, as well as health programmes for waste pickers. Close to her heart is the idea of putting together a travelling photo exhibition on waste. On Facebook, Chintan has a stark image of a landfill with a plume of smoke rising from it. It’s a grim reminder that when we throw trash in the bin, we never think of it again. The chances, however, are high that it would outlive us in a landfill somewhere. 
For more, visit, their Facebook page, and follow Bharati Chaturvedi on Twitter.

Next, a growing movement across the country shows that often, it’s the beneficiaries who are best suited to identify and work on issues affecting them.