Breaking free with books

               Empowering Safai Sathis through Education, Financial and Life-skills

Laxmi at Material Recovery Centre in Panaji, Goa. Photo: UNDP India/Ferdin Sylvester

In her early days working at the Swachhata Kendra in Panaji, Goa, Laxmi recalls how she would sort through the garbage for any sort of toys, books and other knick-knacks for her daughter. She would carefully keep them aside and carry them home, back to the expectant eyes of the little girl. It was her way of trying to make sure that her daughter didn’t end up a rag-picker like herself, and instead got the opportunities that every child deserves. “It was my hope that the shackles of today would not dictate my child’s tomorrow’’ she says.

While Laxmi was not alone in her desire for a better future for her child, the reality of waste-pickers is tragically cyclical; forced by poverty to keep their children out of school, most of them find their children back in the same professions as themselves, unable to ever break out of their circumstances. In the stray instance that a family can afford schooling for their children, they are more likely to send their boys. The girl child, then, will never emerge from this trap.

Unless, of course, the cycle is broken.

When UNDP India started work at Panaji’s Material Recovery Facility in partnership with Corporation of the city of Panaji and HDFC Bank, one of the earliest lessons was this: waste pickers weren’t needed to simply manage waste. Waste pickers were needed to be empowered. A solid support system comprising a stable income, healthcare, safe working environment, respect in society, and the right to choose, were all needed if this endeavour were really to make a difference.

Plastic and Safai Sathis: Things We Choose to Ignore

Plastic waste has not been a part of our economic pyramid since its introduction over 20 years ago. As plastic found its way gradually into every household in India, our ignorance on its safe disposal or re-use manifested in growing mounds of plastic waste every year. Till today, plastic is thrown out and accumulated at landfills, visible from a distance, as little mountains of garbage.

Despite their visibility, these heaps of garbage are either forgotten, neglected or wilfully ignored by most citizens. And just like plastic, society has also chosen to ignore and invisibilise the millions of workers that every day dig through these mountains of garbage painfully, to clean up after us. Just to earn themselves a livelihood.

For the ragpickers, scavengers, waste workers — or the more appropriately-termed Safai Sathis (“cleaning friends”) — the opportunities to upgrade their lives have been few. There is little chance to save money, social or health security, promise of a better future, or the most critical —the right to choose. Instead, their lives are just about surviving from one day to the next.

When we first met Laxmi, she was like every other waste worker in our country. Marginalised, and at the very bottom of the socio-economic chain. She also faced the same questions everyday: how to break out of this trap and move up? How to extricate her daughter from the same? Would she ever have a better life?

Our early discussions with Laxmi and others like her, led to a series of meetings and awareness sessions with the community members. We realised that educating community members would be primary to this enterprise, particularly, about their own rights as citizens of the country. 

UNDP India Resident Representative Shoko Noda handing over books to children of safai sathis at the library. Photo: UNDP India/ Raja Mani

Books Can Save Lives

Some simple but powerful changes were introduced into the lives of the workers. First, they were educated in basic knowledge of finance and accounts (including the opportunity to open a personal bank account). This was accompanied by giving them a space to expand themselves beyond their identities as waste-workers. Laxmi, for instance, has also recently created a bank account with the help of Mineral Foundation of Goa, UNDP India’s social inclusion partner in the dry waste management project. She will also be enrolling for a pension plan, along with medical and health insurance. She has also been imparted basics of financial education, for financial stability and a safety net — which can have a transformative effect on her life and that of her children.

Another good news is that she no longer has to hunt for books. There is now a system in place for that: the library accompanying Panaji’s Material Recovery Facility operated by 21 Century Polymer. It is set up entirely from books found in waste. This library is open to all and is free of cost. This will soon be expanded into an evening school for the waste workers. The idea is to provide a space, tools, and a platform to ignite change.

One of the first visitors to the library was Laxmi’s daughter. Although she can’t yet read, she grabbed a book with sparkling eyes, curious with wonder and a desire to learn. Aptly, her name also happens to be Akanksha, or ‘aspiration’ in English. 

These little steps aim to create an environment where both the Safai Sathis and their kids can have the same opportunities as everyone else. Education, skills, health and hygiene, degrees, certificates, and dreams. Most importantly, a world where they have the right to choose.