Breaking Barriers: Pune’s Waste Pickers’ Journey to International Recognition

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Pune, 8th May 2024: Sarika Karadkar expressed the resilient voice of Pune’s waste pickers at the inaugural International Congress of Waste Pickers in Argentina. Organized by the International Alliance of Waste Pickers, from 1st to 5th May, this historic congress highlighted the contributions and struggles of waste pickers globally, while proposing resolutions, policies and discussing most pressing issues of the waste sector. The congress also elected waste picker leadership as the highest decision making authority for the global alliance of waste pickers.

Sarika Karadkar’s participation along with 89 waste pickers representatives from 33 countries like Brazil, Columbia, Ghana, Indonesia, Philippines and South Africa in this prestigious congress reflected as a testament to her unwavering commitment to advocating for the rights and recognition of waste pickers in Pune. She shed light on the inspiring and unique waste management system pioneered by waste pickers in Pune, who were once treated the same as the garbage that was discarded by others. Showcasing the remarkable journey of empowerment and resilience over the past three decades, Sarika shared the unparalleled transformation made by thousands of women like her.

“Despite the obstacles, waste pickers in Pune refused to be marginalized and voiceless, uniting to form their own organizations dedicated to improving their livelihoods, advocating for their rights and becoming the backbone of Pune’s solid waste management system.”, remarked Sarika Karadkar. Sarika, who spent her childhood in the waste depot with her mother spoke passionately about Pune’s waste pickers’ journey, from facing harassment by police and discrimination by society to establishing themselves as strong workers and entrepreneurs. She added, “Through collective action and perseverance, we have not only reclaimed our dignity and self-respect but have also succeeded in legitimizing waste picking as a respectable profession.”

The first International Congress also carried out a march to mark the international workers’ day before electing the waste picker leadership. During the congress, waste picker representatives from different countries collaborated to make policy recommendations that would defend waste pickers’ rights with dignity to international agendas such as Global Plastic Treaty.

The establishment of organizations like the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat and SWaCH Cooperative has empowered thousands of waste pickers, particularly women, to assert their identities as skilled workers and entrepreneurs. These organizations have not only provided livelihood opportunities but have also advocated for better working conditions, social recognition, and environmental sustainability.

At the International Congress of Waste Pickers, Sarika Karadkar also shared insights on the front end, decentralised and importantly equitable doorstep waste collection of SWaCH waste pickers. Overcoming the challenges of at source segregation and lack of awareness, collection system in slums of Pune has highlighted SWaCH model’s effectiveness in promoting inclusivity, sustainability, and social justice.

Aditya Vyas of KKPKP, who spoke with Sarika at the congress, expressed, “Our participation in the congress serves as a beacon of hope for waste pickers worldwide, demonstrating the power of grassroots movements in driving meaningful change. Thousands of stories like Sarika’s underscore the need to recognise voices of marginalised communities and strength of informal workers while shaping society that’s just and fair.”