Urban Resilience and Justice in SoW 2009

by SanskritiStuff I Do: Experiences and Encounters i Pune
October 11th, 2009
Laxmi Narayan argues for a Just Transition: a low carbon world will see a growth of green jobs in sectors such as renewables and mass transportation, but existing environmentally friendly livelihoods such as those in informal recycling must be supported and strengthened

Resilience and Justice

One of the two panel discussions at the Pune launch of the Indian edition of the State of the World 2009 was 'The Urban Perspective: Resilience, Justice and Governance'.

This panel drew upon the State of the World 2009 chapters on Building Resilience[1] which suggests that

Urban resilience can (also) be facilitated through the adoption of pro-poor strategies that enable individuals to develop sustainable and resilient livelihoods. Indeed, having a solid economic base is one of the main ways to help households cope with the shocks and stresses that will become more frequent as a result of climate change,

and Employment in a Low-Carbon World[2], which says:

In developing countries, paper recycling is often done by an informal network of scrap collectors, sometimes organized into cooperatives in order to improve pay and working conditions. Jobs and livelihoods in informal communal recycling efforts are difficult to document; in Cairo, the Zabbaleen have received considerable international attention. Believed to number some 70,000, they recycle an estimated 85 percent of the materials they collect. Brazil is thought to have some 500,000 recycling jobs. China, with estimates as high as 10 million jobs, trumps all other countries in this area.9

And states that

Green jobs need to be decent jobs-offering good wages and income security, safe working conditions, dignity at work, and adequate workers' rights. Sadly, this is not always the case today. Recycling work is sometimes precarious, involving serious occupational health hazards and often generating less than living wages and incomes, as is the case for 700,000 workers in electronics recycling in China.

Sustainable employment (should) be good not only for the environment but also for the people holding the jobs. (Still) An economy that reconciles human aspirations with the planet's limits is eminently possible.

The rest of this post is a rough and somewhat summarized transcript of the talks by Rebecca Kedari and Laxmi Narayan.

Rebecca Kedari

(Waste Collector and Executive Committee member of Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a trade union of waste pickers)

I live in Bopodi and work in Aundh. I used to carry a sack and collect recyclables. Now I collect door to door. We get mixed waste, and separate out the recyclables which I sell to scrap. I make compost and vermi-compost from the organic material. What I am not able to sell as scrap or compost, I discard. The pollution of the environment is not because of me or others like me it is because of rich people. I travel by foot or cycle, and if we are in a hurry we take a bus or auto. In my house I have only one bulb. That is all our electricity consumption. Rich people use polluting cars, lot of electricity etc. We don't pollute the environment instead we contribute to improving it by recycling.

Now in Pune, a company has started to collect mixed waste which is taken to Uruli (dumpsite near Pune) for recycling, and it consists of both dry and wet waste in mixed form. The company has started to take the whole waste and so we will not get the scrap. The little that we used to get - Rs 5 to Rs 10 as user fees - that too we will now not get. Nobody is bothered about what is the impact on us. Company is concerned about its own profits. They should be concerned about our livelihood as well. We need the scrap. What we want is that we should be able to remove the saleable scrap first and then the company can take the rest of the waste to recycle it.

As regards the waste itself - the generator of waste and we the collectors know what is in the waste. When I get mixed waste, I have to find some space within the society premises or outside to segregate it. So people look at us with disgust that we are putting our hands in the waste. The perspective of the passerby is that we are doing a dirty work and they cover their noses when they go by.

We have a problem and that is that we need space to segregate. When we segregate, the neighbours complain, they phone the corporation saying we are increasing the pollution. In fact, pollution is not increasing because of us. It is your waste, what you have generated. So what we want is that in your housing society itself you should provide us a little space for segregation then it will not trouble anybody. We can make compost also in your society premises and you will not need to buy compost. If you give us little space for segregation then we won't have to sit on the road and the municipality officials will not harass us or take away our sacks. So if societies give us some alternative spaces and we can segregate properly and you will benefit from the compost and we will benefit from the dry waste. There is enough space for parking, for 2 or 3 cars, because these are planned in advance. The flats are built later, first parking is built first. In the same way, housing complexes should make space for waste storage and segregation.

In the waste we get diapers, sanitary napkins, bedclothes of sick people at home. These products are very convenient for people. Our cooperative is making special paper bags for disposal of sanitary napkins which you can buy at just Rs 10 a pack. When you dispose such items in these bags which are marked with a special symbol we will know what is inside and we won't open these bags. Now these items come just like that in the waste bags which we open to look for recyclables. When we are working with waste we have to take care of our health. It will be better for you also it is a better way of disposing waste.

Laxmi Narayan

(General Secretary of Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a trade union of waste pickers, and associated with the international advocacy group 'Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing' (WIEGO) advocating a Just Transition at the preparatory committee meetings for the Copenhagen COP)

Waste picker groups from across continents participated in the Bonn discussion and we will be making a representation at the Copenhagen. We are making two points mainly. One, that recycling is under-represented overall at the Climate Change talks. And two, that poor communities have not necessarily been involved in the talks, and we need a stake, a voice, and we need fora to make these issues felt.

One of the key things we feel strongly about is the kind of employment this sector offers. The State of the World 2009 book talks about green jobs that are cleaner and greener. Definitely there are jobs in the renewable energy and transportation sectors. But simultaneously we should look at sectors which have already been promoting environmentally friendly jobs and look at ways to protect them - this does not seem to be happening, in fact everything seems to be happening against that. We should look at mechanisms to strengthen these existing green jobs.

The authors say that even when recycling is promoted, and integration models like Swach where waste pickers are integrated into door step collection in an attempt by the city to improve conditions of work, it may not be on terms that are fully fair. We have to look at work as decent livelihoods, conditions of work, minimum wages, etc as these are the only ways that work becomes sustainable. For this, the city or state needs to make financial investment, make policies that it supports this kind of processes, as this cannot be done in isolation. You cannot simultaneously make two different and opposing policies in each sector.

The connection traditionally made between the Waste sector and Climate Change is related to landfills since they generate methane. Waste to Energy (WtE) projects have been promoted as green as it takes waste as its raw material, but we strongly question that WtE is 'green'. All forms of WtE actually use material that could have been recycled or composted. Several groups have highlighted the residual ash, air pollution and environmental impacts of incineration or burn based technologies. Typically Industry reacts by making better technologies or variants of the same such as RDF, plasma pyrolysis, etc, which all take un-segregated waste. Biogas does not fit here, though some people do refer to biogas too as WtE, but it requires, like compost, a segregated organic stream so it encourages recycling.

Waste to Energy projects are recognized as a CDM option but actually, they would displace a huge number of people, as the waste sector employs about 1% of the economy working in the informal sector. This is likely to get threatened by WtE. WtE impacts livelihoods because it takes in paper plastic cardboard etc for burning, which are also the source of livelihood for the waste collectors. So the question is are we looking at recycling or incineration, and it is an OR, as both are looking at the same resources.

So should you have a centralized model and burn the recyclables, or have a decentralized model, with cash for trash centres and composting. In the choice of the system, the costs, livelihoods, environmental impacts should all be assessed. WtE proponents say their technology is green but we question that strongly. The point is that recycling is robust is independent of doing anything.

It is a sector that ticks. We should look at infrastructure and policies that support it and help it to function much better. Additionally, we have to look at composting and biogas. In the CDM, composting and recycling are not mentioned as options, which should be corrected.


[1] By David Dodman, Jessica Ayers, and Saleemul Huq, (pp 161)

[2] Michael Renner, Sean Sweeney, and Jill Kubit, (pgs 115-118)


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