Miseries of automation: How a scheme to help Hyderabad’s garbage-collectors has backfired

Apparently, the garbage-collectors were happy with their cycle-rickshaws. When are we going to get it right?
Miseries of automation: How a scheme to help Hyderabad’s garbage-collectors has backfired
Miseries of automation: How a scheme to help Hyderabad’s garbage-collectors has backfired
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Prasad has been working as a waste collector for more than 10 years now. When Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) announced the Swachh Driver Cum Owner Scheme in July 2015, he was very keen about getting his own auto tipper. The auto tipper for garbage collection promised to be more efficient and a lot less labour intensive that the cycle-rickshaws they were using. A four wheel auto tipper is a motorised vehicle to collect garbage. It can be mechanically tipped over to dump garbage into a dumping ground.

However, now that the city has started witnessing these autos, Prasad is of the opinion that the scheme does not seem to have reached the rightful audience. There are several pitfalls, and he is clear – the scheme just does not work.

Autos have been given to the wrong people

The GHMC Swachh Driver Cum Owner Scheme promised to distribute 2500 four-wheel auto tippers for garbage collection in the city. The scheme had three requirements – Applicants should be between 21 & 50 years of age, they should have a valid driver’s license, willingness to collect garbage and ready to pay the beneficiary contribution of 10% (for SC/ST) or 20% (for non SC/ST). Nowhere did the scheme specify that autos were to be given to waste workers. Instead, it just said that garbage collectors would be given preference.

Most waste workers, who have been collecting waste for years (using tricycle carts), do not have a valid driver’s license, and hence were unable to avail this scheme. Instead several middlemen and random contractors, who have never been involved in waste work, applied and availed of the scheme. These drivers have now come into localities with preexisting waste workers and are forcing them to leave their area of work. Some of them have also drawn up contracts to employ preexisting waste workers at a fraction of the collection they were receiving earlier.

Basically, they have usurped the work that workers have been doing for decades and are forcing them to give up their livelihood.

Prasad says, “This was meant to offer work for the unemployed. But, we are in the profession and we are being pushed to unemployment.”

“It’s a bull, not a cow!”

The scheme was meant to make workers pay 10% (or 20%) of the cost of the vehicle, while the other 90% (or 10%) was going to be paid through a GHMC-assisted subsidized loan provision. Those who have already received the autos have to start repaying loans to banks. This means that workers have to pay Rs. 7,500/- every month for the next 6 years to repay the loan to banks. However, workers were unaware of the sum of money that they had to pay back to the banks. “Is this not a way of investing in the innocence of workers?”, says Shekar, another worker.

As described in the scheme document, every Swachh DCO will cover 600-800 households and take them to the transfer station. According to news reports, Somesh Kumar, the ex-GHMC Commissioner said that this was supposed to fetch them close to Rs. 40,000 every month.

But, waste workers say that they make anywhere between Rs.7,000 and Rs. 20,000 every month. The advent of the autos has also added the additional overhead of maintenance costs, which was not present in the tricycle carts.

“Right now, a set of workers collect waste from 200-300 households. With the auto, since they are supposed to cover 600-800 households, these people will go out of work. So, because of one auto, 3 families are being driven to the streets”, says Prasad.

The autos have also changed their working procedure. Earlier, waste collected, would be sorted & segregated and then dumped into bins, which were later emptied by municipal vehicles. Now, workers are meant to empty their autos directly at the transfer stations. Though the document mentions 25 modern transfer stations, right now the city is still restricted to three transfer stations. So, workers have to battle peak hour traffic and go to the dumping ground.

“Why don’t they arrange for modern transfer stations before asking us to dump the waste there? It now takes us 3 hours just to dump the waste and come back”, says Prasad. “There is absolutely no benefit from the autos for us. The tricycle carts were like cows, which did not except much from us, but gave us a lot back. However, the autos are like bulls, which just sit around and make us expend money on them.”

A gender divide has inadvertently been introduced

Sunkamma, who also worked as a waste worker says, “After my husband died, I sustained myself and my son with the sale of waste I collected on the tricycle carts. I cannot drive auto rickshaws. What will other women in my position do? We do not want these autos.”

The introduction of the auto tippers has created an unanticipated gender divide. Traditionally, people of the same family or community do waste work. The men collect waste from households and women sort & segregate recyclables. In some colonies, women also push the tricycle-carts and collect waste. However, the introduction of auto tippers has placed a large question mark on the work that women do.

Apart from the obvious handicap of not being able to drive autos, segregation of waste also seems to be an issue. Unlike work done earlier, where workers would tip over and segregate waste in their own localities, waste from autos has to be directly dumped at the transfer point.

Though news reports say that workers can sell recyclables, in the residential area where this author lives, workers have been instructed to not drop the waste on ground for segregation. Instead, they have been trying to pick out as many recyclable materials as they can from the autos.

The union of waste workers has a set of demands to be placed in front of Dr B Janardhan Reddy, Commisioner & Special Officer of GHMC. When the author spoke to them, they were on their way to attend the meeting to present their demands.

In closing they said, “The only people benefitting are Mahindra, banks, Ramky and petrol pumps. Everyone says that waste is wealth; but if it really were wealth, why would we be so poor? Swachh Bharat & Swachh Hyderabad is a new concept for the country; however, we have been doing it for decades. Should they at least not have consulted us before coming up with these schemes?”

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