Waste and Identity

By Poonam Bir Kasturi

Every metropolis in India today has a ‘phone dial enquiry’ system. In Bangalore if you are stuck in some place and need a biryani, you can call a number and they will send you a list of biryani places in that area. But try this, you have moved into a new home and you want to know the contact of a local kabbadiwalla. No phone service will provide this information

They cannot provide this information because they don’t have this information. They don’t have it because most people don’t want it. Most people don’t want it because they do not know or don’t want to segregate waste at home and store it and then sell it. Also when they do sell their waste, they think that these kabbadiwallas cheat them! So some people haggle and fight with these small operators and others prefer a larger contractor, who has a pollution certificate (often a result of paying a bribe) who can talk English and ‘seem professional’. 

In our work trying to understand the complex connections between the informal sector of scavengers, recyclers, ragpickers, waste contractors, municipalities, waste workers, we found that the formal sector is supported by a very robust informal sector. And this informal sector suffers from our collective apathy and disdains because of the way we view the people and this sector and they way the people and this sector view themselves. 

Gandhiji knew that if we did not change the label of ‘bhangi’ to something more dignified and humane, we would not begin to change the way the untouchable waste workers were treated. So he coined a new identity – ‘Harijan’ (children of god).

It is time we took a lesson from this for our own times and begin a fresh exercise on creating a new identity for the people who toil to manage the waste that is thrown out everyday in our cities. 

Why do we need a new identity for our waste informal sector? 

Nobel prize economists, George A. Akerlof & Rachel E. Kranton,  say in their book called ‘Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well Being’:

“People’s notions of what is proper, and what is forbidden, and for whom, are fundamental to how hard they work, and how they learn, spend, and save. Thus people’s identity–their conception of who they are, and who they choose to be–may be the most important factor affecting their economic lives. And the limits placed by society on people’s identity can also be crucial determinants of their economic well-being.”

So if we want the millions of kabbadiwallas to earn more we must also work to redefine their identity, which will enable them to command a better value for their services. 

Lets look at the current identity of the local kabbadiwalla.
We talked to a lot of people and this is what they had to say! People from the middle and higher income groups view the kabbadiwalla work as something very non-technical, low on expertise, high on logistics and labour, low margins, what the uneducated do, and dirty! Some charitable views were, we need these people to recycle our waste, and they are engaged in a very important job. 

What do we see as their motivations? 

As just a job, to make two ends meet. No other alternative, since he is not educated! 

What do we see as the attitudes? 

Shrewd negotiators, cheats, unreliable, untrustworthy and unhygienic. On the plus side, hardworking and entrepreneurial. 

So we wondered, how do they see themselves? We decided to listen to the kabbadiwallas

We mapped all the kabbadiwallas and the wholesalers of waste in an area of Bangalore and found that 90% of them were immigrants only 10% were local people. We spent time with some of them and learnt that they were in this business because they find it lucrative, they want to be their own boss, they thought it was honest work and two of them even said, if it wasn’t for us, how would the mess go away! 

They all agreed that society thought of them as cheats, and did not give them the respect their work deserved. The police and the public sometimes harassed them. They did not want their children to have to do this. 

The barriers that kept them from growing their businesses were language, processes, certifications, space to store and sort the waste and financial capital. When we asked them to think of what they can be proud of, or what their asset was, they all shrugged and said, we have no asset, and we are not educated, what can we be proud of! 

We tried to point out that they were experts, they could look at a plastic or paper and tell you if it could be recycled, they knew how to load a truck in a way that no pallet or forklift could, they could tell what happens to stuff once the recycler gets his hands on it. They knew more about how materials move in a city than most of us educated people do. 

When they listened to this, they shrugged their shoulders, wondering why were excited about these obvious facets of their work. 

The Challenge 

Our challenge was to get the kabbadiwalas to see the green potential of their jobs in the current climate of ecological concerns. We wanted them to begin redefining what they did in terms of the value and not only the material they were dealing with. Because we believe that this will create a new empowered sector that can leverage their tacit knowledge to create more dignity and value. 

But obviously we were not communicating this to them in a way they could comprehend. We had to create material and a framework for them to see some possibilities. We began designing an interactive half a day workshop.  Our first step was to look for a parallel business that had recently changed its identity and use it as the example for our conversation about identity with the kabbadiwallas. We found a great example. In the last 2 years Bangalore has seen the transformation of the simple roadside drink, the sugarcane juice into a branded clean and hygienic offering for the customer. We decided to use this example as the background for a workshop that would allow us to share our thoughts about a direction in which this waste sector could possibly grow. 

Then we filmed many different people talking about their experiences with the kabbadiwallas and edited this into groups of issues, like trust, rates, hygiene, fear etc. This would help the kabbadiwallas see customer perceptions of them. 

Next we shot some of the shops of the kabbadiwallas and then using photo-editing software, changed some details to show new concepts on their identity and services. We also created a map of all of them and a directory, something they were familiar with but never thought they could use as a group to grow their businesses. 


When we ran the workshop, we had only 12 out of the 35 who we had met. It showed that to build trust with this community, we need to engage with them over many years. 

But by the end of the workshop, they were energized with the interaction they had with each other and the concepts. 

It became clear to us, that their everyday grind does not allow them the time to plan or innovate for the future and they need help to do this. Also they need opportunities to build their capacities in communication, processes and customer orientation. To formalize these is the community’s real challenge. 

So this then will be our area of work in the coming years with this community. 

We dream that in the future instead of an entrepreneur calling himself Sree Venkateswara Old Paper Mart, he will call himself ‘Sree Venkateswara green Uncle’. Schools would invite him to do demo’s and presentations on waste cycles in their cities. And the kabbadiwalla community would be connected by SMS in your local areas and have a way to guide you on segregation and recycling. 

Finally these are the experts on the ground doing a real ‘Green’ job! And its time our society builds this sector with this emphasis. 

Poonam Bir Kasturi is the founder of Daily Dump. This article was taken from www.dailydump.org