Safer and Stronger Together: Helping Safai Sathis work with dignity

March 1, 2023

An estimated 4 million Safai Sathis (waste pickers) are key contributors to building a circular economy in India

It’s 7 a.m. on a cold foggy December morning, but 45-year old Janki Devi has already been on the streets of Dehradun for over an hour, picking plastic and other waste items that can be recycled. Janki and hundreds of such workers, march out every day on the streets of Uttarakhand’s Capital, collecting and sifting through the city’s waste that come from households and businesses. 

The work is hard, backbreaking and unhygienic as the waste pickers often rummage through garbage dumps and even embankments of open sewers to pick enough recyclable waste that can be sold to recyclers.

There are an estimated 4 million Safai Sathis (waste pickers) in India who are key cogs in the solid waste management system. They make a living from searching, collecting, segregating and delivering paper, plastic, metal and a number of other recyclable solid waste to recyclers.

The work of Safai Sathis are invaluable in a world battling climate change as they help us immensely to transition to a circular economy – a system that encourages utilizing waste as a resource rather than goring on existing limited resources.

Safai Sathis are one of the primary contributors to India's Swatch Bharat campaign

About 25% of all recycled paper is sourced from waste pickers, while it is as high as 60% in case of plastic. For a country that generates over 60 million tonnes of solid waste annually, the contributions of these hardy workers are indispensable. 

However, Safai Sathis usually belong to the  most vulnerable sections of society and battle social, economic, and health issues daily. Most of them earn a meagre income by selling recyclable waste to a processor, who then finally passes it on to a recycling firm. Also, Safai Sathis still remain on the fringes of society, largely excluded due to social norms.  

In partnership with Rubber, Chemicals & Petrochemicals Skill Development Council (RCPSDC), the United Nations Development Programme initiated an upskilling programme for Safai Sathis in Uttarakhand - ‘Utthaan’ (Uplifting lives of Plastic Waste Management Workforce). 

The initiative, which focuses on training Safai Sathis on modern concepts of waste collection, segregation, and its management along with a focus on health & hygiene is part of project SANKALP run by Uttarakhand Skill Development Mission (UKSDM) in partnership with UNDP.

Safai Sathis attending training under upskilling programme ‘Utthaan’ (Uplifting lives of Plastic Waste Management Workforce)

“Rag pickers (Safai Sathis) belong to the most backward sections of society. They work in very unhygienic conditions. But their work is very important. We thought of providing them training to improve their skills, increase their income and become more involved in the society,” said Vijay Kumar Yadav, Secretary, Skill Development & Employment, UKSDM.

As most Safai Sathis in the informal sector earn a living by picking waste and selling the recyclables to dealers, they were reluctant to spend their working hours to attend training sessions. 

“Given the nature of their work, we conducted these training sessions at locations near their area of work. We demonstrated how to pick up waste, what should be avoided, how to use equipment and wear protective gear so that they don’t contract diseases,” said Priyadarshini Singh, Operations Manager, RSPSDC.

Volunteers went to slums where Safai Sathis live, collected their details and encouraged them to attend the training. 

After a two-day session, the Sathis were provided with garbage picking sticks, gum boots, gloves and fluorescent jackets – essential tools for workers who often have to rummage through solid waste in filthy conditions.   

They were also briefed on the types of solid waste so that they could identify recyclable materials, and also on hazardous items that had to be handled with care.

The programme which initially covered 250 waste pickers is to be extended to other major cities of Uttarakhand. 

“We were taught how to pick garbage, in which dustbin to put wet and dry waste and how to dispose hospital (biomedical) waste. I realized wearing a mask while working is making me breathe easier as I don’t take in any noxious fumes,” says Janki as she puts a bag of plastic waste on a weighing scale.”

“Taking care of health is as important as work.”