Garbage Man

Kallu’s wife Sushma came crying to me one day and said that Kallu was again in Jail. This wasn’t the first time it was happening. And Yadav from Campus Security had said ‘ why do you keep such people in your project?’. But this time she didn’t want him released . She had come to say I should let him remain locked up and that I should say so to the police. She feared he would be violent with her and the children.

Kallu was one of 24 odd people who worked on the Campus Recycling Project –most of whom had never had a steady job, lived in shanties and had worked for years for casual ‘daily wage’ work. The project was now actively working on them to change their lives and give them a steady income by making them members of a cooperative society. Bharati an activist was being paid by the project to mentor the team and liase with the Chartered Accountant to set them up as a cooperative society – a waste NGO. The project hadn’t started off being about changing people’s lives. When it began years ago it was about recycling. But now it was about a lot of things – some that dealt with domestic violence. And I was the project coordinator or Principal Investigator as I was listed in the project files with the university.

My foray into waste began in 1998 as a classroom exercise for my students where we were looking at types of problems and ways to approach them. The municipal corporation of Delhi does not handle waste generated in campuses of the city and it thus left to the Institute administration to manage and dispose its own waste. The traditional system instructed residents and waste workers to throw the garbage in 36 masonry bins distributed in the backyards of the campus, from here it would be transported periodically to the landfill. For years this landfill was the ravine surrounding the old stream in a corner of the campus. From the inception of the campus in 1960 till this project was initiated the only waste that left the campus was that which could be sold to waste traders of the city. The residents, servants, the cleaning staff of the institute and periodically a minor trader would all constitute a system that diverted the metals, glass, news papers and other odd throw-away’s to the local waste trade (kabadi) shops. This was the valuable and clean part of the garbage. The land fill was the site where the ‘rag pickers’ were permitted (carrying proper identification cards) to function; to pick from the mixed dump some plastic, some paper and other odd bits of value. The waste system thus contained the formal and the informal sectors functioning in tandem with practices well established over time.

The first exercise to design a better garbage bin became an exercise to portray the whole system. This portrayal was graphic – showing the polluters at one end and the Campus Landfill at the other – and was made into a small booklet. The solution closed the loop, replaced the landfill by a collection centre, a way station that would function to segregate or process the wastes before passing it on to users further down the chain. It was imagined that in the material cycle thus drawn up the plastic or paper would come back into the homes of the ‘polluters’ some time later, and thus the recycling would be achieved. Providentially at this time the university works department was looking at the specifications to build into a work contract for the next few years. Their initial reactions to the system were that it was idealistic and quite un-workable in reality. They were more keen on two other competing proposals;

(a) One a traditional solution; lets give it to a contractor to take it away, and the other

(b) a solution to employ an agency of rag pickers to run the system and take away what is useful to them.

At an extraordinary meeting the academic side of the board intervened and said the university should lead the way and go for a progressive option – showing the way to society – ‘after all we are a premier university’. Two months later I agreed to do a pilot project, ‘Campus Recycling Programme’ (CRP) to test the Zero Waste system and also agreed to find the funds to run the project from industry sponsorship (IITD Seeks Corporate Support For Recycling Project, Indian Express, New Delhi, 18/ 04/1999). This I did (collecting over two years close to 1.5 million rupees and donations of vehicles and infrastructure) and the project was up and running soon.

In this phase the pilot project serviced 200 houses. Bins were installed outside the homes, a campaign was conducted to elicit the cooperation of the residents, and all the other infrastructure elements required for the project were designed and fabricated. By the sixth month the segregation rates were very good, in the 8th month it was nearly 100 %. At this point the institute asked for it to be upscaled to the whole campus and came in with the salaries for the staff (Approximately Rs.100,000 per month). I continued looking far and wide for sponsors for the vehicles (2 small trucks donated by Scooters India) and for infrastructure (Suzuki and DSCL were the big supporters) like the bins and the building of the collection centre and offices.

In addition to door-to-door campaigns, the local waste collectors were brought into the system by a continual stakeholder dialogue stressing the advantages the new system brought to them. The significant realizations that emerged:

(a) Industrial Design can provide systemic solutions; by building in alternate behaviour patterns and processes in the design of products that constitute the system;

(b) a successful solution, to be sustainable, must have the interests of all the stake holders built into the system; and

(c) the process of getting people to segregate their waste ought to be non coercive.

The project goals were articulated in the 3 R strategy – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle with the specific emphasis on the segregation of waste at source. The solution acknowledged the work of the recycling industry of Delhi and linked campus waste output to the raw material needs of this industry.

A year and a half later I was coordinating the collection of 2 tonnes of waste everyday, and when this project, the Campus Recycling Programme, finally ended there were two worker owned NGOs together servicing, in addition to the University campus, around 8 communities/ localities in the city. There had been a lot of media coverage, many invitations to speak to local community organizations, conference audiences and a role in preparing the position paper for Johannesburg 04. After the project I coordinated the preparation of a status paper for the Department of Science and Technology (the equivalent of ARC as the premier S&T funding agency) on municipal solid waste in the country. What I hold precious and which is really quite significant for me is this and growing;

  1. the lives of the project team members were transformed – 30 families had a predictable source of income;
  2. the city of Delhi and possibly India too had a community model for recycling waste; and
  3. about ten thousand households in the city had a feeling they were making a contribution to society by supporting their waste service provider.

In retrospect the Campus Recycling Programme was for many people, in different places around the world, a lecture they encountered at an environmental event, for others it was a publication and these would be the professional groups. For people in New Delhi and elsewhere in the country they saw it in the papers – the pilot project was in the newspapers quite a lot and the collection centre gradually developed into a site for field visits by people working with waste, and also university class groups curious to see the demonstration project for themselves.  A few of the project sponsors speculated upon whether they could make the project model a business by upscaling – I did an audit project for DSCL looking at this. I visited recycling firms in Lisbon and Rotterdam and set up a dialogue between DSCL and these firms. At this time I was involved with Sajha Manch, a forum of associations of unauthorized colonies in New Delhi and helped write the waste section in the Alternative Master Plan for Delhi. Had I remained in IIT Delhi this, my identity as the waste-wallah, would have continued to grow but as it is I have moved away and back into the core practice of Industrial Design.

In 2003 about 2 tonnes of waste is processed every day. Approximately 90% of the waste is recycled. In year three the project team, now an NGO – Naya Savera (New Dawn) – formed by the team members, was awarded a commercial contract.

The project was awarded the “ Indo-German Greentech Environmental Excellence Award” in January 2001 for its work in demonstrating a sustainable solution to the problem of managing waste in an Indian city.

The project was the topic of a magazine article in a series that looked at people making a difference to society (Outlook India, 17 December 2001: “ Some time in the beginning of this year, Soumitri and Vasudevan decided to spin the boys off into an NGO to disseminate their expertise for projects outiside IIT as well”).

I have presented this project at conferences and workshops in Delft, Lisbon, Israel, and Paris. Student who have worked with me (also other students have studied the projects – typically from MGT and Civil) have worked upon many aspects of the project like the vehicles and other infrastructure elements. I have also used this project in community lectures at RMIT to speak about the nature of problems and about the ways of solving different kinds of problems. I have also spoken of this project in the context of the role of the designer in society. In 2004 a group of students (RMIT – Industrial Design) organised a waste trip like the ones I used to do in India – going from bins to landfills to recycling centres like Vizy.

Today there are many NGOs servicing different parts of New Delhi two of these are run by former staff of the project, and there are many others doing this in much the same fashion. The Waste campus/ collection centre became a tour destination for many of the UN agencies in New Delhi & continues as an exhibition for the project. In June 2000 I was invited to a meeting by UNEP (Paris) on “Product Service Systems”; this was one of the direct outcomes for me, and it was followed by invitations to two more UNEP events. The meeting was to be a crucial formulation of a change of regime in the sustainability discourse – from products to services. I presented the CRP at this meeting and in the debates ensuing made a point that community orientated traditional service systems (the wallahs) existed in developing countries. A UNEP official at that meeting said to me that I was for them “a great new find” – as I was pointing out the Eurocentric nature of their debate on services.

At the end of this meeting I agreed to do a project to look into wallahs and over the next few years had groups of students documenting different wallahs (such as the Dabba-wallahs of Mumbai who have been the subject of study in best practices by Harvard University). This resulted in a joint paper with a colleague for a UNEP conference in Japan in December 2003.

(I am still part of the ventures that emerged from this project)

Attached to this blog is:

  1. A Picasa Album here. (broken link – update in progress)
  2. A google site here.
  3. A Video of the Project is available here.
  4. Asish runs IPCA.
  5. OP Singh runs PEG India.

At the end of this journey – long read – its possible you want to start a Community Based Zero-Waste Recycling Program. Its possible I may be able to help. You can contact me through the form below

1 comment

  1. Dear Sir,
    you have narrated the campus recycling program in a very emotional way and I went back to my days with you while reading it. me and op has extend campus recycling project at very high level. now, we have our own vermicomposting unit and handling more than 100tonne of MSW per month and generating 30tonnes of vermicompost per month. we are just following your guideline to make solid waste management an environmental and ecological sustainable model in INdia.

    ashish Jain


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