Once a waste picker, Indumathi becomes community’s voice at Paris Plastic Treaty

June 14, 2023 06:34 pm | Updated June 15, 2023 05:20 pm IST - Bengaluru

Campaigning for the use of only recyclable plastic, Indumathi says in India, about 50 per cent of waste is not recycled as a large share of it is low-value plastic

Indumathi at her DWCC in K.R. Puram in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Inside the metal-roofed shed located in the corner of her Dry Waste Collection Centre (DWCC) in K.R. Puram, Indumathi is quite busy. Heavy winds last week brought down many of the segregation sheds, and now there’s garbage strewn all around the site.

Ms. Indumathi, who runs the DWCC, oversees the clearing work while also going through the accounts and expenses for the month. New sheds need to be built. The workers should be paid by the 15th.

On one side of the site, the pile of low-value plastic (LVP) waste is starting to look like a small hillock. It is usually bought by cement factories or tar makers, but there have been no orders for the past three months. The BBMP payments are also delayed.


Things, clearly, have not been easy, but 44-year-old Indumathi seems unfazed. It must be the same resolve that led her all the way from being a child labourer to becoming the voice of waste pickers from all over Asia at the second session of the Plastics Treaty in Paris that went on from May 29 to June 2.

‘Outlaw plastic’

“We need ‘Just Transition’ for all waste pickers. That’s what I spoke for,” says Ms. Indumathi.

The term ‘Just Transition’ was coined by Tony Mazzochi, a labour and environmental activist from the US. There are growing calls from the international community to close landfills and outlaw plastics to achieve a sustainable future.

But there are about 20 million waste pickers across the world for whom plastic is a means of livelihood.  The waste pickers community, therefore, demands to be included in the climate change discourse and urges that decisions should be gradually implemented, giving them time and training for the transition.

Ms. Indumathi says, “People like me have a close association with waste. At the conference, I demanded that we should, therefore, be part of conversations on transition. I told them my story as an example.”

Indumathi | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Indumathi’s story

Indumathi, who was born near the Kolar Gold Fields, grew up in Ambur in Tamil Nadu where her father worked in a sugar factory. When she was seven years old, her mother died. As a child, she used to sell idlis made by her grandmother.

By the time she was 11, she had stopped attending school, moved to Bengaluru and started working in a garments factory. At the age of 17, she got married to her cousin, left her job and moved in with his big family in Ambur.

Finding it hard to get by on the meagre earnings of her husband, the couple came to Bengaluru a year later. Ms. Indumathi gave birth to three children in the following years. The first child was born with chronic brain haemorrhages and died in the year 2001. By then, the family was deep in loans which they borrowed for the child’s treatments. The second child, Kirthana, was also detected with heart problems, which pushed the family further into financial liability.

Lone bread winner

In 2010, her husband ended his life. Now, she had to fend for her two kids and herself on her own. So, she started doing multiple jobs like waste picking, helping out at a scrap shop, reselling cheap clothes, and tailoring. In 2011, she started a scrap shop of her own in Thambu Chetty Palya with the help of her friend and colleague Gouramma.

Ms. Indumathi remembers how she would go for collection early in the morning at around 4. Often she would be chased away by cops, residents, and even dogs who watched her with suspicion. All that started changing when she got her ID card in 2015 with the help of Hasiru Dala, an NGO which works with waste pickers. “The ID card helped me bring dignity to my labour,” Ms. Indumathi beams.

In 2016, she started running the DWCC in Ward 150. In the following years, she took up door-to-door collection also. Indumathi, who started off with one ward and three vehicles, is today a waste-worker entrepreneur managing three wards, 12 collection vehicles, 88 workers and 7-8 tonnes of dry waste per day.

Indumathi at her DWCC in K.R. Puram in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Plastic Treaty

It was in 2022 that the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution to form an internationally binding legal treaty on plastic pollution. An Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (INC) would work on this and iron out the terms of the treaty that is expected to be ready by 2025. There have been two INC sessions so far – the first one in Uruguay and the second in Paris, attended by delegates from 180 nations, activist groups, scientists and waste pickers. Ms. Indumathi has been part of both sessions.

“At INC-1, our effort was to convince them why waste pickers should be a part of the conversation,” says Ms. Indumathi who spoke for the community with six other representatives from across the world.

Nalini Sekar, the co-founder of Hasiru Dala, says, “At INC-2, we asked member states to make ‘just transition’ a core objective and succeeded. It is objective number 11 now.” Ms. Sekar helped Ms. Indumathi with translations at the sessions.

Technology needed

So, what has been Ms. Indumathi’s takeaways from being part of a global discourse? “The problems of waste pickers are similar across the globe,” she says. “However, in many other places, Paris, for example, a lot of waste generated is high-value plastic. In India, about 50 per cent of waste is not recycled as a large share of it is low-value plastic (LVP),” she says pointing to the 100-tonne pile on her site.

She is determined that she wouldn’t send them to landfills or burn them as both would harm the environment, but the growing pile eats into her financials. “There should be technology to handle LVP or only recyclable plastic should be used.”

Indumathi, clearly, has come a long way. Both her children have grown up, are educated and help her run the centre. She ensures workers are paid on time, and their kids receive a good education.

“She is such an inspiring person,” says Ms. Sekar from Hasiru Dala. “We have been working with her since 2011-12. But till about 2016-17, she wouldn’t talk much. She is an example of the opportunity and agency DWCC has given people,” she notes.

When it comes to expectations from the government Ms. Indumathi is very clear. “Build capacity, train waste pickers, improve technology, offer financial support. And my request to citizens, segregate; do not mix waste.”

What is ‘Just Transition’

International Labour Organisation defines ‘Just Transition’ as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.”

The origin of the concept of Just Transition is traced back to the US Labour Movement. The term was coined by Tony Mazzocchi, leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Worker Union, a trade union in the US that existed between 1917 and 1999. Mazzocchi proposed and campaigned for a ‘superfund for workers’ which would provide minimum incomes and education benefits to workers exposed to toxic chemicals. He argued that this would help them transition away from their hazardous jobs.

Following this, a Just Transition Alliance was formed as local communities fighting for a cleaner environment teamed up with the labour unions.

Recently, the concept has gained traction with discourses on the need to arrest climate change and achieve a greener economy gaining momentum. However, any abrupt change would impact workers and leave out sections of society.

The advocates of Just Transition, therefore, demand that the transition towards a sustainable future should include communities and workers in the dialogue, equip them for the transition through training and decent work opportunities, and also address the inequalities inflicted upon them by an extractive economy.

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