"A job does not necessarily define who the people are. For us, it did over a long time," said Purna Man Waiba, President, “Samyukta Safai Jagaran", an organization of IWWs, formed in coordination with PRISM to provide recognition to waste picking as a decent job and waste pickers as decent workers.
"We work very early in the morning and late in the evening to provide an essential service for everyone. Without us for a few days, you will not be able to breathe freely. Without us, you cannot walk in the streets; go to work by bus, scooter or taxi. Without us, you cannot survive without being in a perpetual strife."
The collection of garbage is a low paid work, regarded untouchable. The collectors are discriminated all over and there is no respect and no recognition for them. This is where Practical Action's program has helped to change the things.
"As the countless Hindu deities, we are thousands of precious beings living in the hidden places, creating from the destroyed, protecting from the diseases. But unlike divinities we are not worshipped, rarely thanked. We were left out of the community, considered "untouchable," said a local untouchable.
The situation has changed. Thanks to intervention made through the PRISM project, there is a lot of change in that perception now. "Since we got the opportunity to be master of our own fate, things have started changing. Now we wear special gears, a bus passenger's hand definitely contains much more microbes than ours," said a worker.
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Informal workers in the waste management sector, divided between waste pickers, waste segregators, door-to-door collectors, door-to-door waste buyers and scrap owners, allow collecting 800 tons of waste per month for the sole city of Kathmandu.
It is difficult to foresee the future. Especially since facing the poor living conditions and degrading image those workers have been experiencing can only be regarded from a social perspective for now; this issue is not being included yet in the political agenda. Nonetheless, by observing practical findings obtained along with the PRISM project (Poverty Reduction of Informal workers in Solid waste Management sector), one cannot be but enthusiastic. Informal waste workers were undergoing and therefore somewhat perpetuating a bad image themselves.
According to CIUD, it is estimated that there are 10-15,000 waste pickers and 700-800 Kabadis in Kathmandu Valley. Although these workers play a vital role in dealing with the waste generated in the Valley, the profession is considered shameful and degrading, and its contribution is unrecognized by society as well as local and state authorities.
But once wearing special protection for working became common, they started to seeeach other differently. The PRISM project in collaboration with the Centre for Integrated Urban Development (CIUD), Practical Action Nepal, and the European Union was launched in 2011.
Workers have gathered ever since to create SaSaJa, their own NGO. Samyukta Safai Jagaran (SaSaJa), literally meaning "all united for cleaning awareness", has changed the overall perception on waste management workers, beginning by the workers themselves, now proactive actors of their life.
Awareness often needs to start by self-consciousness to gain sustainable and deserved respect. Change will now have to culminate in improvement of living conditions. Otherwise each one will continue on competing with one another for day-to-day money so as to be able to survive, to struggle for life.
"Working in 5 municipalities of Kathmandu valley, the overall objective of the project is improving the living conditions of informal workers in the solid waste management sector. It will also improve waste services for residents and protect workers' interests. The specific objective is to enhance the social protection of informal sector waste workers and vulnerable groups dependent on waste for their livelihoods," said Srijana Devkota Adhikari Project Manager of Practical Action Nepal.
Supported by European Union, Practical Action-Nepal is implementing the program with the partnership of Centre for Integrated Urban Development (CIUD), Solid Waste Management and Resource Management Centre (SWMRMC), UN-Habitat Water for Asian Cities Program Nepal, Nepal Reuse and Recyclable Goods Entrepreneurs Association (NRRGEA).
"The project targets around 4,000 waste workers, to increase their health and safety, leading to better health outcomes: 2,000 have increased incomes, and 1,000 have access to affordable health care and insurance. We expect that at least 50% of beneficiaries will be women," said Nabin Maharjan, project coordinator of the PRISM.