About 25,000 people scour Bangalore’s garbage dumps looking for things to sell. As in many cities, the lack of formal waste management infrastructure is a picker’s gain: there’s plenty to scavenge. But then the pickers have to endure unimaginable conditions, and many run into health problems. The average life expectancy of a picker in Bangalore is just 39.
The idea of I Got Garbage–a project from local consulting firm Mindtree–is twofold. First, it aims to employ pickers in more healthful conditions–to have them still be pickers, but to work door-to-door, instead of among the detritus. And second, to take on some of the challenge of ever-growing waste in Indian cities. Bangalore (officially called Bengaluru) alone produces about 6,000 tons a day, or 600 truckloads, the vast majority of which is “disposed of” rather than “managed” in any careful way.
“This is the only community that does any kind of large-scale recycling,” says Prashant Mehra, the executive in charge of the project. “The unfortunate thing is they do this scavenging on garbage heaps.”
I Got Garbage organizes the informal picking sector into a slick operation that now takes care of garbage for almost 7,000 homes, offices, restaurants and shopping malls. The 55-strong Mindtree team identifies the most entrepreneurial pickers and makes them an offer: in return for working for the platform, they can double their normal wages. The pickers visit their clients, explain they need organics and recyclables separated, and then return each day. The service costs 100 rupees a month, or $1.60, which is cheap even by Indian standards.
As you would expect from an IT services firm, the operation is highly data-driven. Bangalore is split into 300 meter by 300 meter quadrants and each picker uses an app to keep in touch and track activity. Mehra says wages typically rise from about 4,500 rupees ($72) when the pickers worked for themselves, to 9,000 rupees ($144) when they start working for I Got Garbage. If a wife and husband are employed together, that’s a life-changing jump in income. At that level, Mehra says, families are able to start sending kids to school.
Most of all, the pickers no longer have to rifle through dumps to make a living. They’re offering a waste management solution, but not putting their health at risk to do it.
Mindtree set up the platform two years ago and runs four separate business models on it. Another sees the pickers sell composting kits, so people can recycle their own organic waste, as well as plastic pots and seeds, so they can grow stuff with what results. “We love this one because it completely rebrands the ragpicker. He becomes a composting and gardening consultant,” Mehra says.
With more than 5,000 Bangalore pickers now receiving wages through I Got Garbage, Mindtree is now expanding to the cities of Pune and Aurangabad, in Maharashtra state. The aim is to be self-financing through small cuts in the workers’ wages, though nothing’s been taken from the budget so far. Mehra says operating costs are about $1,000 a month, not including the salaries of the 55 Mindtree employees.
“What we’re actually building underneath I Got Garbage is a general purpose livelihood platform,” Mehra adds. “We believe India lacks this kind of integrated platform for all kinds of [social] solutions. It’s like infrastructure.”