The Leadership Review Team

Optimizing the Rag Picking Value Chain

The Leadership Review Team

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When you run an image search for ‘rag pickers’ on Google, the result is laden with images that incite bewilderment, disgust, and compassion all at the same time – images dominated by visuals of heaps and mountains of waste; faces covered in dust and dirt; bodies that scream malnutrition; and a few occasional vultures adding to the gloom. Which country can these images be from?

Had there been a prize for guessing, our sponsors would go bankrupt multiple times over, every single day! Yes, almost all of these pictures are from India. We could have said that all these pictures are from India, but for a Canadian anti-fashion emporium called Ragpickers!

India’s Rag Picking Underbelly

In India, one would often encounter rag pickers carrying a plastic sack, which is not any better than what it is filled with! Ironically enough, it still is the only thing that distinguishes its bearer from a beggar.

However, just like with beggars, no real census has ever been taken to ascertain the number of rag pickers in India. A National Commission of Labour report from 2002 estimated the number of scrap collectors in the country to be around 50lakh. To put the number in perspective, the number of scrap collectors in India is roughly eighty times the number of Zoroastrians in India.

These rag pickers are generally rural families who have immigrated to India’s cities and upwardly mobile towns. Being from the lowermost strata of our society,  they are extremely poor by default. To worsen the situation, children from these families also are actively engaged in rag-picking, even at hazardous waste dumping sites. Their day starts early, as they begin scrounging around the garbage dumps and the monotony of it continues throughout the day. The entire exercise however, is not as easy as just finding garbage and selling it to the scrap buyers. The garbage picking industry, like any other, has a hierarchy and a value chain. Like many other value chains involving poorest of the poor, this one too, is infested with several middlemen who exploit these naive rag pickers for a living.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and International Labour Organization (ILO) figures from the year 2000, the mean monthly per capita income of scrap collectors’ family ranges between Rs 126 to Rs 2,233; one in four of these households fall below the poverty line.  No substantial change seems to have happened to that figure even now!

However, rag pickers of India have a plethora of woes, and poverty is just one of them. Should one’s workplace be your neighborhood dumpster or the mountain of waste in a forgotten corner of the city, one needs to worry about many other things – exposure to hazardous chemical waste; susceptibility to a host of infections; chronic malnutrition; and above all, a social stigma that denies them the dignity of labour.

Can this nation of billion strong people bring dignity to its most unfortunate children, the rag pickers? Apparently yes, and one of the most shining examples of it is on display in Chennai. A section of rag picker community in Chennai no longer has to face most of the afore-mentioned hardships, and earns around Rs 7,000 every month. And they play their role as custodians of waste management with passion! Behind this revolution of sorts, at the bottom of the pyramid, has been a soft-spoken man who had given up on a well paying corporate job to take up the cause of the environment.

Bringing Dignity to the Rag Pickers

Abdul Ghani has been combating Global Warming for the last eight years after quitting his rather generous job at a leading MNC Bank in Chennai. An ardent admirer of former President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, he is the Chief Coordinator of the Green Kalam Movement advised by Kalam himself.

Abdul Ghani

Abdul Ghani

An Accidental Start

It all started when Abdul Ghani implemented a waste management program in the bank where he worked. It turned out to be a great success and this initiative was highly appreciated both by the management and his colleagues. It was the success of this project that inspired Abdul Ghani to expand its scope to the city of Chennai which generates 4.5 million tonnes of garbage and is the second largest garbage generator in the country.

To conduct his preliminary research, Abdul Ghani went to one of the largest landfills in Chennai and what he witnessed there changed him forever. In Abdul Ghani’s own words, “At the dump yard, I could barely breath due to all the stench and I suddenly saw this group of rag pickers who were scarcely in their teens, chasing a garbage truck. These rag pickers were not very different from our children but for torn clothes and filth-covered slender bodies. Bemused, I followed them and what I saw next left me agape. I saw these children excitedly scavenge for food in the freshly discarded waste from a city’s garbage truck! Adults around them, who I presumed to be their family, were not as excited but scavenged for edibles nevertheless.”  This really touched his heart and he decided to do something for the community of rag pickers, whose existence of plight most of us remain so oblivious about.

In the beginning, the rag pickers were a little skeptic of this urban sahib with neat clothes. But there is no skepticism in situations like these that cannot be won over with a good hot meal. Once he got the rag pickers to open up, he begun meeting them, talking to them on a platform of equality, and exploring ways to support them. In the process, he discovered a novel approach to help them.

He was hoping to get them out of rag picking as a means to survive and help them make a living by polishing shoes, working tables at restaurants, and other jobs that have relatively more dignity to offer. Abdul Ghani was really inspired by what the rag-pickers had to say about this. Abdul Ghani recalls, “Each one of them believed that the job they were doing was really noble and they were very passionate about it. They felt that it was rag picking alone that could save the environment. This is when I resolved that if rag picking is a passion for them; the only way to help them was to convert this passion into a respectful and safer source of living.”

Adding Value to the Rag Picking Value Chain

While Abdul Ghani was able to get health check-ups done for the rag-pickers, he wondered why people don’t call a rag picker to take care of the waste just like they call a doctor to take care of their health. Why don’t we have a neighbourhood rag picker’s number saved on our phone just like we have the numbers of the local plumber, electrician, or a mechanic! This is when he realised that if he could tweak the rag picking value chain, it could create a sustainable source of income for the rag pickers. He decided to bring their waste management skills to the market!

As the first step towards this goal, Abdul Ghani wanted to set up a waste management center in Chintadripet, a low profile area in Chennai. In this facility he planned to inhabit some of the rag picker families where the parents would engage in segregating waste in a safe environment and the children would go to school. Like most revolutionary ideas rooted in goodness, this was a Herculean task and he faced his share of disappointments in the beginning. He tried to approach the then central government for funds and support, but to no avail. He also tried getting corporate sponsorship, but it did not work out in the absence of a proven track record. Eventually, he set up the Chintadripet facility by investing whatever little he had saved from his salary.

With the Chintadripet facility set up, the next challenge for Abdul Ghani was to make it self-sustaining. He was convinced that if it was to depend on donations and grants, it would not sustain for long. Abdul Ghani, with a great sense of satisfaction in his eyes, remembers:

“To make the initiative self-sustaining, we needed money. And this money was to be generated by waste management while ensuring safety of the rag pickers. So, I never even considered the industrial waste. That limited our marketplace to corporate offices and individual citizens. I thought going to organisations would make more sense because unlike individuals, organisations are ready to spend a reasonable sum of money on disposing off the waste their offices generate. Their engaging with professional facility management services is a testimony to that. Moreover, their waste largely comprises paper cups, plastic glasses, empty water bottles, and used paper – all things the kabadiwalas and recycling plants would be interested in.

So, here I was again, approaching corporate offices and recycling plants to seek their business, not pity.”

This time he got a great response and soon many organisations willingly got on board. Initially the rag pickers would collect the waste from the offices, bring it to the Chintadripet facility, segregate the recyclable waste, and send to the recycling plants. Later, to save the efforts and transport cost, Abdul Ghani dedicated some of the rag-pickers to each office which could provide with space to segregate the recyclable waste. Periodically, the recyclable waste gets sent to the recyclers and in the process, fewer trees are chopped down to make paper.

It is an amazing win-win situation Abdul Ghani has created for everyone. The recyclers get recyclable waste without the middle man increasing the margins, and their products get promoted by Abdul Ghani at different platforms from where he gets to share his story. The organisations are able to save money they would otherwise have shelled out to dispose office waste in a socially responsible way. And rag pickers – now equipped with gloves, goggles, masks, and medical insurance – get paid by both, the organisations and recyclers, and earn around Rs 7000 a month!

Education – The Next Frontier

Abdul Ghani has devised another unique and effective way to ensure the education for the children of rag pickers’ community. Through the Make Earth Smile Again (MESA) program, Abdul Ghani has created a small, yet steady source of fund to sponsor the education of children from the rag picker community. Under the MESA program, every week school children compete amongst themselves to collect recyclable waste from their school and homes. The money generated by selling this recyclable waste is used in the education of rag picker children.

Although Abdul Ghani is dedicatedly working to spread the cause of education in the rag picker community, he feels that a lot remains to be done.

Conclusion

With the ‘Clean India Initiative’ gaining ground all over the country, this is an idea whose time has come. Abdul Ghani sums this next step, “If we have a facility like the one at Chintadripet in every neighbourhood, the large dump yards along with our country’s waste management problems would disappear in no time. If I can do it, everyone can.”

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