Role Of Safai Saathi In The Waste Value Chain

by | Apr 28, 2021

Safai Saathi

Safai Saathi is anyone who works towards the betterment of the environment in any form. There are many Invisible Environmentalists around us who we fail to acknowledge in daily life. Have you ever noticed the lady walking with the huge white bag on her back? Did you ever wonder where she’s coming from, what she is doing or what is she going to  do with all the waste that she’s collecting? Does anyone pay any kind of gratitude to her for keeping our surroundings clean? Did you ever thank her?

Waste Value Chain – Waste value chain is the system which revolves around waste. Once the waste is picked up from our house/a place it revolves with many stakeholders like the Safai Saathis (waste pickers), Kabaadiwalas (scrap dealers), Paryavaran Mitras (municipal corporation employees) before it finally goes to recyclers where something else is made out of that waste or it goes to landfill.

What is waste? Is everything that we let go is waste? What happens to waste once we bid goodbye to it? Who all are involved in the waste (value) chain? What is the role of safai saathis (waste pickers) in this whole process?

Journey Of Waste

Until a year ago, I thought I’m very conscious as I would ensure that all the waste from my home, went into a dustbin, and no plastic was thrown out of the house on the streets. Municipal collection truck would come once every 4-5 days, and I or my mother would throw all the waste in the truck, not leaving anything in the house or spilling it out on the street. I used to feel great!

Later, as a part of India Fellow, as destiny would have, my journey with Waste Warriors began. The year has been overwhelming in a lot of ways and was a great exposure to things and situations which I had never encountered till now. I never saw waste with this lens, rather ever saw it. We define waste as anything that is no longer usable. But when I found this lens, I could see well. The first question that the lens made me ask if everything I let go is waste?

Who would have thought the height to which Mr. Jugaad (the entrepreneur) could think? He saw something that not all could see and formed a lens to show that to all. Ones who could see joined him, learnt the game and are playing it rigorously. With Mr.Jugaad they evolved the game in a way that multiple players could play.

He didn’t see waste as waste, but as a resource. Ones who could see the same, joined the game with him. As it happened, he further invented a game called Trashonomy, which basically brought back the trash, while completing the economic cycle.

In Trashonomy, multiple players come together, took what everyone called waste, and make an entire system around it after which the waste would go to an appropriate place. The different players involved in the game are:

  1. Formal waste collection systems are the municipal workers, sweepers who collect waste from streets, households, shops, etc. and send the waste to landfill. In the cases where they collect mixed waste, the truck drivers and the helpers informally sell the valuable recyclables (like hard plastic, PET bottles, cardboard, glass, metal cans, etc.) and generate some extra income out of it by selling to kabaadiwalas.  
  2. The aggregators (scrap dealers / kabaadiwalas) do value addition to the waste that they receive by segregating the waste into further categories and process them till as a product which can be directly sent to end-recyclers and then a new product is made from that. There are hierarchies in this system too where there are small scale players and the big aggregators that process it more. In some cases, machines like Shredder, Bailer, Aglo, Fatka are also used to increase the transportation efficiency and bring the product more closer to the end product.
  3. Interestingly, there are Safai Saathis / invisible environmentalists in this game, who play the role of seeker. Without them, it would probably be impossible to play this game. They are the ones who are normally referred to as waste pickers/rag pickers and are looked down upon by other communities. They bring waste from the places where it is difficult for the formal systems to get and they also give their waste to kabaadiwalas to send for further recycling.
  4. Last and the most important players here are the generators, ones who produce waste. Few have joined the game and are taking responsibility for the waste they produce, but the game is waiting for the rest to join.

Waste As A Resource

The lens that Mr. Jugaad invented asked this question: “Is everything that I let go waste?”

Surprisingly, when I started asking this question there was nothing that I could say is waste. This lens helped me segregate my waste better at source itself. Here are few examples of how the disposal of waste changed after the lens:

Type of waste Before the lens After the lens
Vegetable peels Throw in dustbin Give to cattle/Use for home composting
Coconut husk Throw in dustbin Can use as dry waste while home composting
Plastic wrappers and all other kind of plastic Throw in dustbin Collect and then can give to Safai Saathis/kabaadiwalas and send it for recycling
Sanitary pads Throw in dustbin Will go to the landfill or for incineration. ALERT! Find an alternative

This lens showed me where any particular thing will go after it left the dustbin, which is why I could think twice before letting go of anything. I started collecting all the dry waste, which also reminded me the things that I couldn’t let go of easily, which in turn reduced my consumption. I couldn’t do anything to sanitary pads but throw them in the bin. Packing that pad after use into a plastic bag and disposing off into the dustbin every month felt very bad, which is why I shifted to menstrual cups.

The deeper I looked into the lens, the more conscious it made me. Three months during the end of fellowship, I stored all my waste and it was a small bag with some packaging material that I couldn’t get rid of. I could send that little bag for recycling to the major aggregators.

Waste Warriors

I found this lens at Waste Warriors, which is an organization that came into existence with the emerging waste epidemic that our country is going through, interestingly through the vision of a British lady called Jodie Underhill. The organization sowed its seeds as mountain cleaners in Dharamshala and branched from there to Dehradun and then Corbett. The organization started from cleaning to waste segregating and involving itself in government liaising and now formalizing the whole waste value chain by working with the people who are at the bottom of pyramid and have stigma attached to them. Safai Saathis contribute the most into the recycling industry working in the most unhygienic conditions and living in very vulnerable conditions.       

Why is waste produced? To what level does it get in and how does it affect the nature and humans? How does Trashonomy changes in different contexts? What are the challenges in these context and what are the strategies adopted to face that challenge?

The End?

Maggi is available in the upmost shop of the Truind trek in Dharamshala. Maggi is available at every ‘thela’ in Jim Corbett National Park and to the every small and big treks around Dehradun. When we go for the trek, we go with the thought of coming back, plan our trip accordingly considering how much time we want to be there. Unfortunately the problem here is that the Maggi packet goes there without the plan of coming back down.

When plastic stays there it starts becoming toxic as it’s just staying there. It remains at the same place and tries to merge with the natural elements, but how can it? Because it becomes impossible for the plastic to dilute itself and merge with the environment where it is, it starts releasing toxic chemicals into nature and water, which in turn we consume in different forms.

Every context has different challenges, so Trashonomy changes a bit from context to context. For example, Dehradun is the ever-growing city where the municipal corporation is trying to solve this problem through a public-private partnership model. In Dharamshala there are a lot of tourists, and they’re mountains, so it becomes a big challenge for the municipal corporation to monitor and train new people floating in and out every day. While Jim Corbett is a protected forest area the villages are very scattered and waste is probably last of their problems. Every place comes with its own set of challenges and the working methods do change from place to place.


A lot of emphasis of Waste Warriors in Dehradun is on changing the behavior patterns of the citizens in terms of segregation, and working with Nagar Nigam around improving the existing systems by taking small steps. A lot of work is also done with schools under different programs, as they will form the future of tomorrow. A zero-waste model for a tourist destination is being worked out with the local shop vendors in Dehradun. A Material Recovery Facility is also coming up where machines for value addition to plastic have been installed and are operated by onboarding the Safai Saathis from nearby area.

“U.P. – Bihar se aa jaate hai, aur chori chakka karte hai.” (They migrate from U.P. and Bihar and come and steal things.”

This was the common statement that we heard from people who have white collar jobs. It is found that they shift from small towns into urban cities in search of jobs and money, but stay in the most unhygienic and vulnerable conditions in the slums around. There are more than 500 Safai Saathis (waste pickers) that Waste Warriors could find in few slums of Dehradun. This number excludes all the kids who also do the same work.

I was once in the Bindal slums, and while it was morning 7 am in cold winters of January month in Dehradun, I saw 5 kids waking up from sleep and their parents asking them to wash their face and leave the house for waste picking. In sleep itself, they woke up, took their bags cleaned themselves in less than two minutes and left the house. After that they went into the Bindal river, which was a beautiful river once which is now home to men doing drugs and playing cards and a whole slum developed on the edge. Those kids went into the marshy mess of that river and started picking up whatever valuable they could find.

I met a kid about half my height smelling all alcohol near one of the drop off points where he collected the recyclable waste going into the huge dustbin. He started his day at 2 am and this is would be his fourth sale.

Chandrakala Ji, is one of the Safai Saathis in Dehradun, and she with her group has been working around Gandhi Park – a prominent area of the city since 25 years. She starts her day before 6 in the morning and goes for collecting waste. After that around 11am all the women would come together and keep the waste in a corner behind Gandhi Park. She would leave again for the second round and come back around 4pm to the same spot. After that they would segregate all the waste collected in the day and sell it to the kabaadiwala at around 5pm. There is a school opposite to that corner who gives them food every day when they would go to the school to collect the waste.

After Waste Warriors started engaging with the community, we could provide them with ID cards and safety gears like gloves, mask and shoes to work. Sweepers are not permanent employees of municipality and they’re always in conflict with the Safai saathis working there. So once they were provided with such safety gears conflict between them increased as they would misunderstand it as employees of the municipality. The sweepers try to steal their dry waste when they would go out for picking and also harm their safety gears. Unfortunately, mishaps like these seem to be a regular part of their life.    

As of now, the roads are expanding and the municipality is going to move them away from that place. They are unsure of where they would go next. Few houses in different areas have also been destroyed by the government for development purposes, and one of our beloved groups had to move everything to a place, where they’re hoping to stay.


This location has a lot of tourist population coming in and going out everyday. People come here to enjoy the beauty of nature while missing out on what they leave back for the nature that they came for. Unfortunately, a lot of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste is left back on the beautiful treks and trails by us. Here Waste Warriors engages with the community through interactions over the canopy and clean-up drives. Lot of tourists do join us for such activities. When a landfill came up in Dharamshala, people in nearby settlements were very excited that now we’ll be able to get rid of our waste in nearby vicinities itself. It was only till the time that they realized about the adverse effects of landfills.

A lot of people have migrated there as Safai Saathis also to keep the environment clean and generate some income through waste, but as we know the mountains come up with their own challenges. It becomes very difficult for the Safai Saathis to go till the top of the mountains and get all the waste down.

In Dharamshala, Waste Warriors works in upper Bhagsu where we engage with the community through interactions over the canopy and clean-up drives on the trails. Lot of tourists, with all enthusiasm, join us for these activities.

Lokman, one of our Safai Saathis starts at 6am in the morning in the Bhagsu area. He starts his day by emptying the dustbins on the Bhagsu trail. After that he has 3 dedicated areas with around 40 places in each area to collect the waste. Alternate days he goes to those places and carries about 50-60kgs of waste on his back and comes down till the segregation point, which is a small place before Bhagsu waterfall. After lunch he segregates his waste and sells it to a scrap dealer in McLeod Ganj, and pays for a truck to take the non-recyclables. On the roads which are just difficult to walk on, he walks with so much of weight on his back.

He mentioned an incident where some tourist asked him to take him on his back about more than 1 km uphill towards Bhagsu waterfall for Rs. 20. He really feels about that incident and wonders how can one have the audacity to ask like this? He was like I understand we work for waste, but still is that the correct way. He felt so strongly after this incident that he wants to learn English like never before. Waste warriors has started English classes for the Green Workers in Dharamshala, once a week on every Sunday. I got an opportunity to be part of one of these classes and Lokman was very curious to learn as he wants to talk to tourists, tell them about segregation of waste and learn to write a receipt while collecting monthly donations in exchange of waste collection from the hotels and cafes.

Lokman has been working with Waste Warriors for more than 6 years now and seeing him and the team there, I could closely see how the community there has been mobilized and made independent with passing time.

Safai Saathis And The Lens

As we saw Safai Saathis in all these situations are working for the betterment of the environment by jeopardising their own health and living conditions while asking for a very little support and some respect. Something that I’ve learnt from the tea sessions with Chandrakala Ji, and her team is that all they’re waiting for is the humanity to treat them just like we treat any other person around us, to see them just as a human and not a dalit or a waste picker or not someone from Bihar.  

The normal notion boils down to Ye log kude mein kaam karte hai (these are the people that work in waste).There’s a question to ask, everytime one thinks or says this, “Who’s waste is it after all?”

The lens I found helped me understand waste better and see that we can save ourselves from this danger just by taking baby steps towards understanding the waste better and taking informed decisions regarding the same. I’ve realized understanding segregation is no rocket science and that any common man can practise it with very minimum efforts. The game is on and the players are waiting for you and me to join the game.

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