Rag-Pickers in India | 05 Mar 2022

This editorial is based on “Wheels of Swachh Bharat” which was published in Indian Express on 05/03/2022. It talks about the social and economic upliftment of the rag-pickers in India.

For Prelims: 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Solid Waste Management Rules, Plastic Waste Management Rules 2022.

For Mains: rag-pickers in India - challenges faced by them, issues to their upliftment and measures that can be taken for their welfare.

For decades, rag-pickers, working in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, have picked up what we throw away. They form the base of a pyramid that includes scrap dealers, aggregators and re-processors.

Unfortunately, most informal rag-pickers remain invisible. Between 1.5 and 4 million rag-pickers in India work without social security, health insurance, minimum wages or basic protective gear.

As India progresses towards meeting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the plight of Safai Saathis makes a compelling case to intensify efforts to address the challenges faced by them.

What is the Scenario of rag-pickers in India?

  • It is estimated that India generates 65 million tonnes of waste each year and is home to more than 4 million rag-pickers.
    • Predominantly women, this army of rag-pickers or Safai Saathis is the backbone of traditional waste management in most Indian cities.
  • There have been initiatives for the inclusion of rag-pickers such as:
    • A 1995 report of the High-Power Committee on Solid Waste Management constituted by the Planning Commission called for integration of rag-pickers into the system.
      • In 1988, an Expert Group constituted by the Supreme Court echoed the same recommendation.
    • The Solid Waste Management Rules and Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, also recognise the contribution of rag-pickers and hold that they be included in the solid waste management of local bodies.
    • However, the rag-pickers have not been included in any disaster management plan of the administration.
  • When the government announced measures during the pandemic to support frontline workers, the rag-picker community remained conspicuous by its absence.
  • Their multiple vulnerabilities, including low and uncertain incomes, limited access to government schemes, high health risks, and severe social exclusion, have all been exacerbated by Covid-19.

What are the Roadblocks to their Upliftment?

  • Unavailability of Data: In 2018, the UNDP India started working with Safai Saathis through its Plastic Waste Management programme. However, the paucity of data on this community led to obstructions in devising programmes and policies to support Safai Saathis.
    • However, this led UNDP India to design and publish India’s first large-scale analysis of the socio-economic conditions of Safai Saathis, based on a survey of over 9,000 workers across 14 Indian cities.
  • Lack of Formal Education: The survey of the socio-economic conditions of Safai Saathis showed that they are employed mainly on the margins of the urban informal sector.
    • Their low incomes and job insecurity is compounded by the fact that nearly 70% come from socially backward groups and over 60% have no formal education.
  • Obstructions in Formalisation: More than 90% of the workers reported owning an Aadhaar card - in line with broad national trends, but only a tiny subset owned an income, caste, or occupation certificate.
    • This thwarts any attempts at formalising their work and limits their access to government social security schemes.
  • No Health Insurance: As per the UNDP survey, less than 5% of those surveyed had any health insurance, indicating very high degrees of health-shock vulnerabilities.
  • Not Connected to Government Welfare Schemes: Out of the total Safai Saathis, surveyed, who had a bank account, only 20% were linked to the Jan Dhan Yojana — the government’s flagship financial inclusion programme.
    • Only half of the surveyed people reported owning and using a ration card and this proportion was even smaller in cities where migrants formed a larger share among surveyed workers.

What Steps Can Be Taken?

  • Registration with ULBs: An important starting point is the registration of Safai Saathis by Urban Local Bodies, and providing ID cards that recognise them as municipal workers with a clear role.
    • Ensuring minimum pay and enabling their authorised access to waste are essential next steps.
    • Diversified solid waste management-linked livelihoods like dry waste centre managers and machine operators can broaden employment horizons for these workers.
  • Ensuring Food-Security for Them: With its focus on portability, the government’s One Nation One Ration Card scheme has the potential to play a transformative role in ensuring access to subsidised food grains for these workers.
  • Economic and Social Upliftment: The overall policy agenda for Safai Saathis must include a firm focus on building resilience against shocks, expanding access to social protection, and creating opportunities to graduate towards safe, sustainable, and dignified livelihoods.
  • Inclusion in Government Policies: A welfare framework to design social protection schemes explicitly for Safai Saathis should be a policy priority.
    • Proactively reaching out to the workers for enrolment in government schemes, minimising paperwork, and a greater awareness among Safai Saathis about their entitlements are essential for linking them to government programmes.
      • rag-pickers’ cooperatives shall also strengthen Safai Saathis’ collective bargaining power enabling higher prices for what they collect.
  • Alternative, Better Employments: India makes determined strides towards realising the Sustainable Development Goals, it must look at exploring alternate, technology-led circular economy models that eliminate the need for any person to do this hazardous work manually.
    • There is a clear need to create better, safer, decent jobs in the economy that informal workers like Safai Saathis can eventually move to, supported by efforts to enhance their skills.

Drishti Mains Question

“India is making determined strides towards realising the Sustainable Development Goals, however, the target is far from being achieved unless the poor working conditions of the rag-pickers in India is addressed”. Comment.


Q. As per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 in India, which one of the following statements is correct? (2019)

(a) Waste generator has to segregate waste into five categories.
(b) The Rules are applicable to notified urban local bodies, notified towns and all industrial townships only.
(c) The Rules provide for exact and elaborate criteria for the identification of sites for landfills and waste processing facilities.
(d) It is mandatory on the part of the waste generator that the waste generated in one district cannot be moved to another district.

Ans: (c)