May 31, 2024

Saamuhika Shakti: Enabling Waste Pickers to Lead Secure and Dignified Lives

Saamuhika Shakti's work with waste pickers in India seeks to improve work conditions, enable career transitions, ensure more stable incomes, improve access to services, and establish support systems.

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“We have started to receive more respect from the households we collect waste from, as well as the police who now recognise our efforts. Even our confidence in raising issues and asking for our rights has increased.”
Male Waste Picker, Kunthigrama

The hub of India’s tech industry, Bengaluru, is home to more than 13 million people. Waste pickers keep the city clean, yet historic discrimination denies them dignity and equal treatment. They continue to experience hazardous work conditions, low wages, and deprivation of government benefits. Most do not have social security identification and are invisible to the civic administration as well as the larger population. Decades of discrimination and exploitation have also withered their sense of self, silencing their voices in requests for rights.

With support from Saamuhika Shakti, the waste pickers now have greater ability to channel collective action toward the pursuit of a better life. Not only have they gained more respect from the communities they serve, they also have improved their access to basic services. They play a pivotal role in the success and sustainability of solutions that benefit them. 

Saamuhika Shakti’s role in community-driven change 

Saamuhika Shakti is a collective impact initiative1 that uses the expertise of partner non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enable waste pickers to make choices that lead to secure and dignified lives. Initiated and supported by the H&M Foundation and The/Nudge Institute, Saamuhika Shakti focuses on a range of areas, including social security; housing; livelihoods; health; water access, sanitation, and hygiene; and education.2 The collaborative’s aims include improving work conditions, enabling career transitions, ensuring more stable incomes, improving access to services, and establishing support systems for survivors of abuse. Saamuhika Shakti stresses the importance of these outcomes for women and girls in waste-picker communities.

Why Saamuhika Shakti adopted a community-driven change approach

Saamuhika Shakti began with an approach of centring the community. Before the collaborative was formed, FSG, a global consulting firm, conducted a study to compile needs identified by the community to inform the collaborative’s priorities. Saamuhika Shakti also initiated a process of listening before taking action, which has been essential to the collaborative’s success. 

Facilitating a shared vision and collective ownership

The nonprofit Hasiru Dala, founded a decade ago to work with Bengaluru waste pickers, facilitates a monthly forum called Namma Jagali, or “our space,” where waste pickers discuss pressing issues and possible solutions. These forums provide opportunities to identify common challenges and prioritise needs, while providing feedback to Saamuhika Shakti that allows for adapting and improving its approach. “The forums are critical to centring the community’s voice and focusing the collaborative’s efforts,” says Akshay Soni, former executive director of Saamuhika Shakti. For example, the community highlighted how a lack of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene contributes to other health challenges. 

Saamuhika Shakti helps channel collective action toward the pursuit of a better life for waste pickers      Saamuhika Shakti helps communities channel collective action toward the pursuit of a better life for waste pickers.

The priorities and solutions identified in the forums are implemented with support from the NGOs that are members of the collaborative. For instance, Bal Raksha Bharat and Sambhav Foundation provide support specific to education and alternative livelihoods, while WaterAid India helps the community conduct social resource mapping to identify water access, sanitation, and hygiene challenges at the household level. “The communities identify problems and discuss solutions,” says Hemalatha Patil, a WaterAid India state programme director. “We go to them with options which they choose from. For every project, we ensure the community contributes 10 percent towards infrastructure to inspire a sense of ownership.” 

With Saamuhika Shakti’s support, ten self-help groups formed by women have collaborated to become part of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission. This enables them to access government benefits, and their success has inspired them to advocate for other basic rights. With support from Hasiru Dala, the community has also identified 44 social security schemes that waste pickers are entitled to and are now trying to access.

Strengthening the community’s leadership and asset base

To promote sustainability, Saamuhika Shakti works with the community and its leaders to develop the knowledge and skills needed for their solutions to succeed. One partner, Bal Raksha Bharat, works with children and adolescents to develop their ability to seek rightful benefits from government and service providers. The waste pickers’ children can now engage with child protection committees and local school systems to advocate for their needs and demand better services. 

Another partner, Sambhav Foundation, supports women waste pickers’ access to alternative livelihoods by providing training and helping them set up self-help groups, create bank accounts, and build a savings practice. The women’s increased confidence has inspired many to start their own businesses as part of a micro-entrepreneurship programme.

Focusing on equity

Half of Bengaluru’s waste pickers are women. They earn roughly one-third less than men, and many face risks of domestic violence. For these reasons, Saamuhika Shakti partners prioritise gender equity as a foundational goal of the programmes they facilitate. 

For example, WaterAid India has set up maintenance committees that oversee the management of sanitation facilities and ensured that among the eight committees set up to date, 54 percent of the members are women. While the WaterAid India team routinely conducts water access, sanitation, and hygiene training with waste pickers and their families, they also specifically conduct menstrual hygiene management training with adolescent girls and women to reduce taboos and misinformation related to menstruation. 

Outcomes in communities

With the support of Saamuhika Shakti partners, waste pickers have not only increased awareness of their rights and of the government schemes they can access – over 7,000 have now received social security identification – but also increased their incomes through training for alternative livelihoods. 

Since 2020, Saamuhika Shakti has helped workers at Dry Waste Collection Centres to organise collectives, which have provided workers more financial stability. Thirty-four Dry Waste Collection Centre collectives have opened bank accounts and helped individuals to open accounts. Partner organisations Circular Apparel Innovation Factory and Enviu have worked with these collectives to divert 150,000 kilograms of textile waste from landfills, creating employment opportunities for pickers who recycle the discarded textiles. Social Alpha’s work with start-ups in Bengaluru has made it possible to place waste pickers in better employment opportunities. 

To help change the social norms and narratives around waste pickers in the minds of the general population, BBC Media Action conducts awareness campaigns. These campaigns provide a platform for waste pickers to share their stories, with a special focus on women waste pickers. The Invaluables campaign, which aims to change perceptions of waste pickers from “invisible” to “invaluable,” achieved great results, raising awareness from 22 percent to 54 percent. The campaigns have also bolstered the waste pickers’ own perception of their work, inspiring a sense of pride. 

1. Collective Impact is a methodology – developed by FSG in the United States and adapted by Saamuhika Shakti in India – that “brings people together in a structured way to achieve social change in an equitable manner.”

2. This case study is based on research and information received from various Saamuhika Shakti partners and communities prior to March 2024. It reflects the collective’s journey and impact from Phase 1 (January 2020–March 2024). Phase 1 started with seven NGO partners: Bal Raksha Bharat, BBC Media Action, CARE, Hasiru Dala, Sambhav Foundation, Social Alpha, and WaterAid India. In January 2023, Circular Apparel Innovation Factory and Enviu joined the collective to build and pilot an inclusive circular textile waste management loop in Bengaluru. Towards the end of Phase 1, CARE withdrew from the collective as they stopped India operations. As of April 2024, the collaborative has moved into Phase 2 with Sattva Consulting as the backbone organisation. Sparsha Trust and Udhyam Learning Foundation have joined as NGO partners. Phase 2 will continue until December 2026.

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