Invisible but invaluable: Empowering waste pickers

In India, waste pickers go about their jobs, silently contributing to creating a more sustainable society. Nalini Shekar’s goal in life is to bring them out of the shadows and into the limelight

“My name is Mala. I go around collecting hair from women, and trade this hair for utensils. Life is hard, but it used to be worse. We didn’t have any formal identification — no voter IDs, no ration or Aadhaar cards, nothing,” says Mala, a waste picker from Bengaluru, who earns around ₹50 to ₹100 each day for the work she does.

Mala is just one of the many migrants who make their way into cities in search of a job. But because of their social status — they’re most often Dalits — and lack of education, they end up getting into informal waste picking. They go around collecting waste from the streets, like organic waste, plastic bottles, empty milk packets, cardboard, and multi-layered plastics. They then sort through all this waste, and sell it to scrap dealers and recyclers. They ensure that the waste you toss out is recycled, rather than ending up in a landfill.

And yet, almost always, they are invisible. They are marginalised, have no formal recognition from authorities, and receive no social benefits.

“We started working with waste pickers in the 1990s. We spent a lot of time with them, even accompanying them to work, to understand what they did. Today, everyone talks about recycling and a circular economy but, back then, no one spoke about it. But that’s what these people were doing. But the way they were doing it was not good for them. That had to change,” says Nalini Shekar, who went on to establish Hasiru Dala, an organisation that supports and represents the cause of waste pickers in Bengaluru and beyond.

Nalini’s inspiring story is featured in Season 4 of 101 India x MG Changemakers, an initiative that brings stories of inspiring women who are torchbearers of change in their communities. The latest season focuses on stories advocating for the sustainable development of communities.

In pursuit of an identity

India is home to anywhere between 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers. Bengaluru alone is home to around 30,000 of these green warriors, and together, they stop 3,83,250 tonnes of reusable waste from reaching the city’s landfills each year.

Their full potential to contribute to the circular economy remains unrealised due to not just the factors mentioned before, but also their disconnection from the formal economy. Additionally, they face significant occupational hazards and social exclusion.

“They do fantastic work, but no one recognises them. Even within the slums, they live on the periphery. They’re on the streets every day, trying to work while having to fight with dogs, snakes, and people. But even when the situation is grim, they continue to stand tall and do their job diligently,” says Nalini.

One of the first items on Nalini’s agenda after forming Hasiru Dala in 2010 was to get these waste pickers formal recognition from the government, so that they could carry out their important work without facing harassment from the police or citizens.

“There was a case going on in the Lok Adalat in Bengaluru. We told them that these people are managing about 6,000 tonnes of garbage for you. They’re saving so much money for you. What are you doing for them? At least give them identity cards. We wanted the municipal commission to acknowledge the work the waste pickers were doing,” says Nalini.

This is how, in 2011, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) became the first urban local body to issue Occupational Identity Cards to waste pickers.

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Going above and beyond

Since then, over 11,000 Occupational Identity Cards have been issued. But that’s not all. Hasiru Dala has continued to work with the waste picker community. They facilitate access to social security entitlements such as PAN cards and pensions schemes; help educate the children of waste pickers, tackling issues from enrollment to scholarships; and provide training to waste pickers in subjects like financial literacy. They have also helped set up 33 dry waste collection centres in Bengaluru, which are often run by former waste pickers themselves.

Nalini says, “They know more about sustainability than most of us. They might not know the right terms to describe it, but they know what it means. For instance, they know how to segregate plastic into 36 different types, which, despite working with them for 25 years, I still don’t know how to do.”

Her dream is for the people they’re working with to eventually take over the running of Hasiru Dala, and for it to become a self-sufficient entity.

“Dignity of labour is important. Policy makers need to look at waste pickers as partners in the process of waste management,” says Nalini.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

Written By: Shraddha Uchil