By: Isheeta Sharma
Pune’s SWaCH workers are part of India’s first cooperative of waste pickers. They have been in place for 14 years working to provide a seamless process for segregated waste management in Pune.
Covering 70% of the city they are the backbone of Pune’s waste management system. However, they are currently protesting Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) decision to bring them under contract labour and for not renewing their 5 year contract since December 2020. PMC continues to renew their contract temporarily on a monthly basis. This is a point of contention for the workers and is a threat to their livelihoods. Being part of a cooperative means the workers make their own decisions and have their individual freedoms. With the process of contractualisation that PMC wishes to initiate this freedom will also come under threat.
Over 70% of the workers are self-employed women and the board of directors of SWaCh is all-women as well. During COVID-19 a lot of the workers risked their lives to provide proper waste management to the city, arranging for PPE kits and ration by raising funds. They continue to collect waste door-to-door from households that might have COVID positive patients. Yet their demands are being side-lined and they have not received support from the government, as they should have.
Even as they continue to work so that the city does not come to a standstill, the workers are marking their protest by wearing a black band to work. In an article published by the Indian Express Rani Shivsharan a worker from Hadapsar said, “Discussions to contractualise our livelihoods have gained significant momentum, but we have still not got the promised incentive allowance during the first wave of Covid, life insurance, PPE, essential equipment like pushcarts, buckets. This is infuriating. We lost our sisters to Covid, yet we continued working. Does the PMC have an iota of commitment towards valuing waste pickers’ efforts?”
Contractualisation of this primary system of waste management and picking would mean low-accountability for the workers’ needs while at the same time an increase in operational costs. The workers have complained about the PMC’s decision to not provide them aid during COVID-19 in the form of essential items, PPE kits, pushcarts, life insurance and incentive allowance. Even as they struggle with getting their basic rights as workers fulfilled, PMC seems to be pushing their efforts towards the periphery.
The livelihoods of 3500 workers is at risk with contractualisation of their work. The workers have been protesting since 2020 but have increased their efforts since May 2020 with a plan to further intensify their protest if their demands are not met. In the statement released by SWaCH the workers said, “Waste pickers are protesting against the PMC’s hypocrisy by wearing black bands to work from tomorrow (May 25). Once Covid restrictions are relaxed, they will intensify their protest in a constitutional and Covid-appropriate manner till their voices are heard and issues resolved.”
The PMC must take into cognisance the workers’ opinion before taking any decision that pertains to their lives and livelihood.
For more information on SWaCH workers you can visit swachcoop.com.
: Isheeta is a features writer and a student of Gender Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She enjoys dissecting popular culture through a gendered lens, adding new books to her overflowing book rack and sipping coffee in quiet corners. She is currently an Intern at Kractivist.org.