"Who could imagine that we could turn ordinary garbage into gold!" exclaims Sushila Mokal, a rag-picker who now works as a supervisor for Parisar Vikas, an association of about 2,000 women rag-pickers in Mumbai. Parisar Vikas (meaning Eco-development) collects garbage from several localities, converts kitchen waste into compost for plants and sells the non-biodegradable waste to recycling centers. "We are helping to save the environment, cleaning up the city and earning our livelihood," says Mokal proudly.
Indeed, the Parisar Vikas scheme is the pioneering effort of Stree Mukti Sanghathana, a women's organization that has been organizing around women's issues in Mumbai since 1975. Better known for its inspiring Marathi play on the girl-child, 'Mulghi Zhali Ho!' (A girl is born!), its counseling for women in distress and programs for adolescents, the organization literally stumbled onto garbage disposal and environmental awareness about seven years ago while maintaining a cr'che for women rag-pickers in Shramjeevi Nagar, a locality of Mumbai.
"We learnt of the problems women faced in their work and began organizing them. Soon, we realized that forming associations of the women rag-pickers was only a first step towards training them to undertake environmental activities like bio-composting, vermiculture and gardening, says Jyoti Mhapsekar, president of Stree Mukti Sanghathana (SMS).
Now, women rag-pickers, re-designated as 'parisar bhaginis' (or neighborhood sisters), go from house to house in several localities in Mumbai and collect garbage that has already been segregated into 'wet' and 'dry' waste. They then convert the former into compost, sell or recycle the latter and maintain plant nurseries and gardens in housing societies. They even sell specially designed bio-composting buckets for Rs 350 each (1US$=Rs49), providing a detailed pamphlet and an orientation to individual households.
"We encourage people to put their wet kitchen waste into these 'magic' buckets and explain to them that the resultant compost can be used as organic compost for their plants. We monitor the process and step in if there is any problem, for instance, foul smell. For this, we provide a powder that helps remove the odor," says Mokal.
The women are paid Rs 75 per day and are happy that they get a steady income that is above the minimum wage. Above all, they radiate a deep sense of satisfaction at regaining their dignity and self-respect. "I used to be a rag-picker and worked in a dumping ground but I prefer this work. There are better conditions, I get good money for it and I like it," says Tahera Sheikh, who dons an apron and works diligently at separating the dry and wet garbage in Basera Housing Society in Deonar, a locality in Mumbai's dusty north-west suburb of Chembur.
The Basera Society houses at least 30 apartments in two buildings and was among the first housing complexes to start a compost pit in its compound. Manju Saxena, an active member of the Society says that it took several meetings and discussions with residents to convince them of the efficacy of the method. "People were worried about the smell of rotting garbage and didn't want to do any of the dirty work. But now, we have become a model for other societies in the area," she says.
Sheikh is paid Rs 1,000 for four hours of work. Her task is to separate the garbage, sweep the building compound, maintain the garden, and deposit the wet garbage into two compost pits specially constructed by the society and the dry garbage into a drum for disposal.
Conducted as part of the 'Advanced Locality Management Program' of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the project has been replicated in several housing complexes across the city.
Tata Power Corporation's verdant housing colony in Chembur, with 540, houses posed its own problems. Kitchen waste was of the order of 600 kgs daily while at least one tonne of dry leaves from the scores of trees in the colony had to be continually swept and converted into compost. At least 20 women, all former rag-pickers, and a supervisor, work to fill 13 pits specially made for the purpose. "Their training had to include cleaning and sweeping because rag-pickers never knew how to do anything but sift through garbage," says Mhapsekar.
The women now know how to make layers of kitchen waste, dry leaves and cow manure, watering it and checking for foul smells. For its work here, Parisar Vikas earns Rs 88,000 per month, to pay salaries to its sweepers and supervisor and rent a truck for garbage collection. "We have learnt so much," says Sharda, supervisor at the Tata Housing Colony.
The women's work is not without hazards, however. Seven women and a coordinator are employed in the Deonar dumping ground to convert the wet waste that comes straight from the city's vegetable markets into compost. Conditions are pathetic, as the women struggle against offensive smells and smoke generated from mounds of burning garbage. "These fires have been raging for the last 15 days," says Shakuntala Kurkute, supervisor. The garbage catches fire partly due to the heat generated by metals in the garbage and partly because other rag-pickers try to melt plastic and iron objects.
The women are given protective gear like goggles, aprons and masks but they usually avoid working with masks as it becomes unbearably hot. In the monsoons, the ground turns into a flooded marshland, and the prospect of navigating non-existent roads through rivulets of garbage is horrific. The women workers at the Deonar ground are paid Rs 75 per day and the sole male worker gets Rs 100 for the more heavy-duty work he does. At least 15 to 18 tonnes of compost is generated in 40 days from the Deonar project, and is sold to buyers from farms and plant nurseries at the rate of about Rs 2,500 per tonne under the brand name of 'Mrinmayee'- the life-giving compost.
For the Parisar Bhaginis in the Tata Housing Colony, hurting their hands while handling kitchen garbage mixed with glass pieces, sharp metal and even razor blades, is another occupational hazard. Numerous requests to the residents to sift out wet and dry garbage at source have fallen on deaf ears as some insensitive and indifferent residents throw garbage out indiscriminately.
"Small is definitely not beautiful in the case of plastic pouches and sachets," says Mhapsekar, pointing to the scores of packets of 'gutka' (chewing tobacco) dotting the garbage mounds at Deonar. Ultimately, the objective of Parisar Vikas is to create a zero-garbage waste situation in urban areas, generating awareness about the role of rag pickers in protecting the environment and helping them form cooperatives and participate in saving schemes and income generating schemes.
The work of the SMS with women rag-pickers has had an interesting fallout - the challenge posed to the traditional caste system by the simple changes wrought in the nature of the work. "Now that the women are taking training in growing and maintaining plant nurseries, they are even becoming gardeners, breaking both a caste and gender taboo," says Mhapsekar.