Paul Colombini

Paul Colombini (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Paul graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in art history and a BS in international business. He also taught English abroad for several years, first in Japan and then in China. At the time of his fellowship, Paul was studying for a Masters in international development at The American University in Washington, DC. After his fellowship, Paul wrote: "This experience helped me understand India and Indian society and also gave me a greater appreciation of the enormous difficulties of development and grassroots efforts in particular."

Delhi’s Dirty Little Secret

26 Jun

Above: A typical Delhi scene which I pass everyday on the way to work. Many Delhi sidewalks are impassable because of the amount of garbage covering them, forcing people to walk in the street.

The streets of Delhi are awash with trash. Navigating the city on foot can be difficult because many sidewalks lie buried and invisible under piles of stinking, colorful garbage, up to a meter deep. The stench when the tropical sun hits the piles of unsorted dry and wet garbage is almost unbearable. Yet Delhi’s inhabitants choose to ignore the smell, and the medieval disposal system persists: people dump their garbage on the street or in the river, pretending that it will disappear, and the government pretends to collect it. This system may have worked before plastic and aluminum were introduced to India, but now it has terrible consequences, because modern trash is non-biodegradable. Waste management is one of Delhi’s biggest problems, and one it has in common with much of the developing world.

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Then there are those who actually do collect the garbage: the wastepickers. They are part of another problem: the immigration of millions of desperately poor people from the countryside into the already poor and overcrowded city. But they also represent the cheapest and most effective solution for Delhi’s waste problem. Their poverty assures that they are willing to do any task for a livelihood: even sort through other people’s trash. And so that’s what they do, day and night: extract every reusable piece of garbage from the piles that accumulate around the city, and make sure it gets to recyclers. For this valuable work they typically receive $1 to $2 a day; enough to survive if you live in a slum. Wastepickers represent about 1% of Delhi’s population, but they manage over 20% of its daily waste in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Figure from “Wasting Our Local Resources: The Need for Inclusive Waste Management” by Bharati Chaturvedi, 2007

The informal waste management system in Delhi is complex and multi-leveled, employing many thousands of people at different stages. At the bottom level are wastepickers. Most wastepickers are people who came to Delhi from poor rural areas in search of work and a better life, but were unable to find either. Wastepickers make their income by collecting recyclable materials from the trash that litters Delhi’s sidewalks and from the overflowing bins on many street corners. This activity is often viewed as illegitimate (although it is technically legal), and wastepickers are constantly harassed by the police and community organizations. Slightly more esteemed than wastepickers are thiawalas: junk dealers who go door to door buying recyclables from households and offices. They are seen as more legitimate businessmen/women because they actually “buy” the trash they collect, rather than picking it up off the street.

After collecting and sorting recyclable trash (typically using space in a park or on a non-crowded sidewalk for the sorting process), wastepickers and thiawalas sell their recyclables to small neighborhood junk dealers (small kabaris), who then sell it to larger junk dealers (big kabaris). Finally, the useful garbage is sold to recycling plants where it is cut up and turned into new products. Each link in the supply chain adds income for those who participate, and the total chain supplies livelihoods to tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have no work.

Figure from “Wasting Our Local Resources: The Need for Inclusive Waste Management” by Bharati Chaturvedi, 2007

The alternative to the wastepicker/thiawala recycling system is trash pick-up by private companies, but this system represents both a threat to the environment and the livelihoods of Delhi’s wastepickers. In Delhi, as in most parts of the world, private waste disposal companies dump all the garbage they collect, recyclable and non-recyclable, in large landfills. The reason is because private collection companies have no economic incentive for recycling: it is much cheaper to dispose of the trash in a landfill than to sort and recycle it. As a result, Delhi’s landfills are now approaching maximum capacity. The two systems are contrasted in the chart above, with private (formal) waste collection on the left and informal waste collection on the right. As you can see, the only waste which gets recycled under the formal system is that small amount which the wastepickers are able to scavenge from dumpsters and trash bins before it is taken away to the landfills. Thus in India private waste collection results directly in less trash being recycled. Moreover, private waste collection is much more expensive than the informal system, since it involves the government paying a company to take away trash rather than citizens having their trash removed for free by a wastepicker. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, the privatization of Delhi’s waste collection is eliminating a last-ditch opportunity for Delhi’s poorest citizens to make a living by waste picking, without which they have no where to turn for money.

Given the benefits of informal waste collection vs. formal waste collection, why is the Delhi government rapidly expanding formal collection, illegalizing waste picking, and disbanding the informal recycling chain? The answer is simple: large private waste collection companies can afford to lobby the municipal government effectively to get the contracts they want, and can pay the police to kick wastepickers out of their collection areas. Moreover, and perhaps more deeply motivating, is the desire of the Delhi municipal government to modernize, gentrify, and “catch up” with cities in more developed countries: a goal which simply is not realistic given the intense poverty of India. In this increasingly hostile environment, the Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group stands as one of the only organizations ready to defend the rights of wastepickers to make a living from trash. This does not mean fighting against all privatization, but it does mean assuring that wastepickers continue to be able to make a living in Delhi. As Bharati Chaturvedi, Chintan’s founder, says in her groundbreaking 2007 report on Inclusive Waste Management: “In a country still mired in poverty, why shouldn’t policy promote a system that allows thousands of players sharing a public resource, instead of dividing it up amongst only a handful?”

Perhaps private waste collection will become a viable option when development lifts more of India’s people out of extreme poverty, and when efficient large-scale recycling can be subsidized by the government. But until then waste picking remains the best solution for providing jobs and efficient recycling in Delhi.

Although government waste bins marked “recyclable” and “non-recyclable” are everywhere in Delhi, most are nonfunctional like this one or filled to the brim with unsorted garbage. The obstacles to efficient waste collection and recycling in Delhi are huge, and so far the best solution for both is the informal recyling system.

Posted By Paul Colombini

Posted Jun 26th, 2008


  • Yiming

    June 30, 2008


    a very clear statement…now I know their garbage disposal system…interesting, I don’t even know how China does this job

  • A work mate linked me to your resource. Thanks for the resources.

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