In a warehouse in India’s IT capital Bengaluru, eight women and men sit on bast fibre mats, sorting through rubbish, their hands flying. Tetrapaks are tossed to the left, plastic bottles to the right, paper and cardboard behind them, old shoes in a sack in the corner, coconuts in a bin.
“My workers recognise 72 varieties of rubbish,” says Mansoor proudly.
The 33-year-old was a waste picker a short time ago. Today he employs 10 families and numbers himself among the many entrepreneurs in the city of 8.5 million. “When the sacks come in the early morning, they are weighed, the results noted down on tablet computers and the rubbish collectors are paid,” the wiry young man explains cheerfully. “Then we sort and sell the products to recyclers.”
He handles 15 tons of garbage per month, Mansoor says, almost bursting with pride as he speaks of his achievements: he provides his workers with uniforms and bicycles, has been allocated refuse sources reserved for him, keeps an eye on market prices and knows the best recycling customers. “It’s a good business,” he says.
The professionalism of Mansoor and around 600 other rubbish collectors follows a shake-up administered by a local IT firm, Mindtree.
Bangladore’s Global Village, the campus where Mindtree has its corporate headquarters, could hardly look more different from Mansoor’s part of town.
Visitors are welcomed to newly paved and pothole-free streets lined with palm trees and golf-course style lawns. Artificial waterfalls decorate the landscape.
More than 10,000 people working in steel and glass towers are Mindtree employees. For a year and a half, 45 of them have been trying to solve the city’s rubbish problem, while at the same time improving the lives of the rubbish collectors.
“Technology should help all people, no matter what kind of work they perform,” says Mindtree’s Satyam Gabir.
Previously, almost 4,000 tonnes of rubbish had been landing daily in disposal sites on the edge of the city with no work done to extract recyclables from it.
“This is expensive and spoils the air and land around the dump sites,” says Gambir. “Only 800 to 1,000 tonnes was being sorted by the waste pickers before arrival, mainly to extract plastic and cardboard.”
Mindtree realised that more recyclables could be recovered if the collecting process was less random and industries could be identified that would dependably buy the recycled material.
His company is changing this in cooperation with several non-governmental organisations that work directly with the poor. Some 190 jobs like Mansoor’s have been created, and more are to follow. “They function as though they were warehouses: entrance, inventory, exit,” says Gambir about the new garbage sorting sites. All the arriving “goods” are recorded with the help of an app on the tablets. Firms, shops and households that produce rubbish can also use a related app, ‘I Got Garbage’, reporting when rubbish needs to be picked up by waste pickers on a cargo rickshaw.
“Until now the individual trash companies or rubbish collectors picked up only a certain sort of rubbish, for example, paper. We take everything,” Gambir says, describing the advantages for the businesses and homes that just want their garbage to go away. Furthermore, it helps that there is now an increasing readiness among Indians to accept that there is a rubbish problem in the country.
“’Swachh Bharat’ (the new campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a clean India) has changed mindsets. People are now listening to us,” says Gambir.
Nalini Shekar, co-founder of the NGO Hasiru Dala, sees a future in ‘I Got Garbage’. “The app optimizes the whole process and allows the waste pickers to become more professional,” she says. Her NGO helps train people how to use the technology.
“It was important that the app would always become simpler, with a lot of symbols, since many pickers are nearly illiterate,” she says. Currently more and more tablets have been handed out to rubbish workers.
“I have big dreams,” she says of the project.