When working with marginalised communities like waste pickers, the challenge isn’t ‘how many’ waste pickers there are. It’s the multitude of problems they face. There are about 22,500 informal waste pickers in Bengaluru. (They are different from the govt-appointed ‘pourakarmikas’ or waste workers.)
Compared to the pourakarmikas (who have some degree of recognition and assured monthly incomes) the waste pickers are an invisible workforce. A majority come from the lowest strata of society. The community is constantly fighting stigma, low income, gender disparity, limited upward mobility, and a lack of access to education and health services.
Over the decades, various organisations have worked with communities like waste pickers with targeted interventions. In Bengaluru, for instance, Hasiru Dala has been at the forefront fighting for the rights of waste workers and waste pickers, mobilising the community, and creating awareness about their issues.
But the various, interlinked problems mean you need more organisations and stakeholders to join hands, and find holistic solutions. the efforts of one organisation aren’t enough.
Very soon, you will be faced with various questions. What about the children of waste workers? What about access to clean water and sanitation? What about alternative livelihoods?
The answers aren’t always straightforward.
It’s when working with communities like waste pickers that a ‘Collective Impact’ methodology makes sense. The Saamuhika Shakti Collective Impact initiative fulfills many of the criteria for achieving this impact.
Nine implementing organisations — BBC Media Action, CARE India, Hasiru Dala, Save the Children, Sambhav Foundation, Social alpha, WaterAid, The/Nudge Institute, H&M Foundation, Enviu and Circular Apparel Innovation Factory (CAIF) — have joined forces to help informal waste pickers lead secure and dignified lives. Each of these organisations have their own set of expertise, while programme has a specific focus on gender and equity.
The Saamuhika Shakti work has been initiated and funded by H&M foundation. The/Nudge Institute is the backbone organisation coordinating various practical aspects of the project and among all the partners.
Fatima’s story: Why intersectionality in programmes matters
Fatima* works as a waste picker in Hebbal in north Bengaluru. Meeting her during the course of our mobilisation drive, this emaciated mother of two is bubbly and enthusiastic.
We set up a makeshift tailoring skilling center across the slum where Fatima lives, literally a 2-minute walk away. The classes were scheduled for late afternoons — a small window when the women waste pickers had some time for themselves.
But even then, mobilizing candidates has been an uphill challenge. In Fatima’s case, her husband hurt himself and lost his job, which meant she was the sole breadwinner in the family. Then her youngest child fell ill, and the medical treatment ate into the family’s meagre savings. One month, the entire slum was flooded during the rains.
So despite the skilling center being accessible physically, a vast gulf had opened up between her life and accessing better opportunities.
Walk around the slum of waste pickers, and you hear multiple issues of development converging. Children who are ill because they don’t have clean water; stigma and discrimination from the local community; no opportunities to break out of the profession; lack of access to formal finance.
How big is the problem?
While collective impact methodology calls for clearly defined outcomes and individual responsibilities, one of the first big challenges we faced was identifying the scale of the problem.
CARE India and Sambhav Foundation conducted a baseline survey to assess the challenges that come with implementing livelihood programs. Similarly, WaterAid, BBC Media Action and Save the Children too conducted their own baseline surveys.
In our survey, we found that just 20% of women waste pickers had been part of any collective. Another interesting aspect: 50% of women surveyed believed household decisions ought to be taken by a man.
This immediately signalled the need for gender sensitivity and awareness in the community before any project was undertaken.
Communicating to internal team members
Because of the various stakeholders involved, getting each organisation’s staff onboard with the project is important.
It’s not enough if the top management is onboard. In my experience, the mid-management and grassroots staff need to be sensitised about the overall aim of the project.
This is important — Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and their managers are often moulded by the peculiarities of their organisation’s work culture.
Crucially, all stakeholders need to be on the same page about the scope of the project. Make sure that the same message is going out to the targeted community, and the field staff avoid over committing while being clear about the project mandate.Saamuhika Shakti tackled the problem by setting up coordination workshops for Community Resource Persons quite early on.
Leveraging complementary capabilities
As Priyanka Dutt, the former Country Director of the BBC Media Action said during a discussion a couple of years ago, for a collaborative project like Saamuhika Shakti to work, it’s important to recognise what organisations cannot do.
For BBC Media Action, that was recognising they had no ground connection with the Bengaluru waste picker community — that’s where the experience and expertise of Hasiru Dala came in, which has been working with the waste picker community in Bengaluru for more than a decade. All partners of Saamuhika Shakti greatly benefitted from the learnings and work of Hasiru Dala, and other organisations like CARE india, WaterAid, Save the Children and Sambhav Foundation and built up on it during the on ground program interventions.
CARE India provides entrepreneurship training, forming self-help groups and collectives to enable financial inclusion, helping supplement their incomes. Sambhav Foundation trains waste pickers in data entry, tailoring and beautician work — allowing women to improve incomes and explore other jobs.
In our own case, initially, we decided against setting up a separate, dedicated physical skilling centre. Rather, we took a call to overlay our skilling module into existing programmes.
This was partly because the skilling ecosystem had changed post the pandemic. It made sense to include micro-learning and other opportunities. And like Fatima’s case showed earlier, we recognised that skilling and alternative livelihoods possibly came lower down in the list of priorities for the community. Because the pandemic was at its height, we worked to arrange vaccinations and on-demand health workers and staff for the community health programmes.
It’s been more than two years since Saamuhika Shakti was first launched. Among other things, there are a few realisations, both old and new.
One. As I’ve said elsewhere, long-term collaboration is also long-term work — and it’s probably tougher than a marriage.
Two. Collective impact works when each of the organisations can meet their individual (sometimes selfish) goals.
Three. Development sector organisations tend to work in silos, with specific goals. But the communities we work with need all the solutions to come together and complement each other.
To that end, the work of Saamuhika Shakti is an important step forward.