Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

‘Our Aim is Transforming the Lives of 1 Million Safai Mitras by 2025’

Under its Unnati SETU initiative, Recykal Foundation, besides transforming the lives of waste collectors, aims to build a circular economy ecosystem

Viiveck Verma, Chief Impact Officer, Recykal Foundation. Photo Credit: RECYKAL FOUNDATION

Hyderabad-based Rapidue Technologies is a digital solutions provider in the waste-commerce management business. It owns and operates Recykal Foundation, Asia’s first circular economy marketplace, that has been working with India’s Safai Mitras since 2016. Based on observed challenges and gaps in the ecosystem, the company set up the foundation to support this community which has been overlooked all these years. Now, Recykal Foundation is working to transform the lives of one million Safai Mitras in India. Its new initiative, Unnati SETU, is starting with a narrative change to recognise and dignify their contribution. In an interview, Viiveck Verma, Chief Impact Officer, Recykal Foundation, tells Jyoti Verma of Tatsat Chronicle, the importance of this initiative.

Can you elaborate why Unnati SETU is needed?

Recykal Foundation aims to extend multifaceted support to Safai Mitras—waste pickers, processors, collectors, and sanitation workers—by creating an enabling ecosystem. We plan to transform the lives of one million Safai Mitras by 2025. Beginning with redefining the titles of ragpickers, waste pickers, waste collectors and others to Safai Mitras, we have initiated a narrative change to recognise and dignify the contribution of ‘waste workers’ across the country. The initiative aims to drive the social and economic upliftment of these workers.

This is important for India, as the Indian waste management system is highly fragmented and unorganised with a diverse range of players. At the bottom of this entire value chain are these Safai Mitras, who are the key facilitators of this sector. Seventy percent of the Safai Mitras are women, and there is a lot of mental and physical exploitation that makes it an unsafe working environment for them. These women are also underpaid compared to their male counterparts. Child labour is prevalent in this community and often young children work in hazardous conditions, causing severe health problems. Due to a lack of societal recognition, this community continues to be neglected and caught in a vicious cycle. Recykal Foundation was founded with the goal of transforming this unaddressed segment of our society by recognising and dignifying their contribution.

This vision is important for another reason—the amount of waste generated in the country. India generates 65 million tonnes of waste each year and it is the Safai Mitras who bear the brunt of this waste. Under the Unnati SETU (Social and Economic Transformative Upliftment) initiative, our goal is to ensure the economic and social development of one million Safai Mitras by 2025. This can only be achieved with an industry-wide collaborative approach. The foundation seeks to catalyse various stakeholders in the waste management ecosystem to drive this revolutionary change. Recykal Foundation has impacted the lives of 4,000 Safai Mitras by distributing one meal a day, every day, since January 26, 2022, in Gudimalkapur, Hyderabad.

Seventy percent of the Safai Mitras are women, and there is a lot of mental and physical exploitation that makes it an unsafe working environment for them

No recognition: In India, waste gathering is dominated by the unorganised sector

The foundation has adopted four cornerstones in its mission: circular economy by initiating change from the consumer by facilitating an ecosystem for responsible disposal through infrastructure establishment and policy advisory; recognition and inclusion, to dignify Safai Mitras through a two-fold support process that would ensure social inclusion and strengthen their financial capacities; equal opportunities by connecting and strengthening all ecosystem members by providing access to varied learning and working opportunities; and a conscious Gen-next, by spreading awareness and running campaigns to connect with the youth to build an army of aware and conscious individuals.

Through Recykal, the foundation has the opportunity to connect with more than 100 urban local bodies, 100 brands, 4,00,000 consumers, 500 waste aggregators and 150 recyclers and coprocessors, 27 states and Union Territories and 100 schools across the country that have been associated with the company through the years.

What led to the foundation and how has the journey been so far?

Recykal has been around for a little over five years. It is Asia’s largest circular economy marketplace essentially trying to digitally democratise and revolutionise the waste management space in India and then eventually globally. It runs a marketplace and a few businesses. Last year, we felt that while there was a commercial activity and all ecosystem players benefited from our technology initiatives, there was a people-oriented side, the Safai Mitra, for which we must work. We felt there was a need for us to start focusing on them and thought about how we could change their lives. That is when the Recykal Foundation came into being. The foundation started last year as a registered entity and began operations this year.

Helping hand: Besides putting waste back into the circular economy, Recykal Foundation aims to meet the basic needs of and build a support system for Safai Mitras

Our focus is to transform the lives of the Safai Mitra community. There was a study done by UNDP a couple of years ago that said that there are about four million Safai Mitras in the country. Our own feeling is that four million is an underestimate, but if even for a minute we go by the figure in the UNDP report, it’s a huge number of people.

At Recykal Foundation, we realised that the first thing we need to do is provide them with dignity. That is when we changed the language and the narrative. The initiative is not about changing nomenclature, but about changing mindset. It is just another profession, hence there is no reason for their exclusion. Why should they not have an Aadhaar card or a bank account or have access to insurance or safety gear?

During the pandemic, most of us wore masks for long periods. The Safai Mitras work in a toxic environment and segregate waste with bare hands with no safety kits. They inhale all the fumes that emanate from the waste

During the pandemic, most of us wore masks for long periods. The Safai Mitras work in a toxic environment and segregate waste with bare hands with no safety kits. They inhale all the fumes that emanate from the waste. All these issues led to the birth of the Recykal Foundation. Today, our focus is to work on this four million or probably higher number of Safai Mitras over the next many years.

We have divided the world into six communities: schoolchildren, college students, corporates, housing community, public spaces, and the people associated with this ecosystem, i.e., municipal corporation employees, Safai Mitras and all those. For all these six communities, we have developed different category content, and for each, we run a programme. The first five will lead to a collection drive,as we want to affect behavioural change.

Many a time, we educate children about the correct waste collection but when they go home, they have only one dustbin in which they put all kinds of waste, defeating the whole exercise. So, after two to three awareness sessions, our activities in the first five categories culminate in a collection drive. We observe the behavioural changes in them. The other activities are about building a rapport with this community.

The question remains: how do we bring about social and economic transformation? The transformation must lead to the uplift of the community. We will take care of the basic needs of these people such as Aadhaar card, bank accounts, insurance, safety kits, education and healthcare.

How will you sustain this programme?

The programme will be funded through corporate social responsibility (CSR) as we are born out of Recykal, a marketplace, where we are working with about 150 brands in the country. We run a sustainability practice and a business called EPR (extended producer responsibility), where there is also a statutory angle that each brand needs to fulfil. We have deep connections with these 150 brands and are now building a deep connection with corporates who do not run plastic businesses or an e-waste business. From this pool of 300-400 companies, we will seek CSR funding.

Most of our work will happen through technology. For example, we will make a platform available to the Safai Mitra community, where they can get to know the government schemes available to them, and what else they need, like address proof or a bank account.

We will use technology from a scalable perspective. We believe in an ecosystem approach, so we will go out and find the right partners, whether the partners are based on geography or domain knowledge. Like, if we have to look for a sustainable menstrual product, we will partner with an organisation like Goonj, as they work on making cloth-based menstrual pads, which are sustainable and can last longer.

The model will include various partners working in this space to understand this space either from a product perspective or a community connect perspective.

Many a time, we educate children about correct waste collection but when they go home, they have only one dustbin in which they put all kinds of waste, defeating the whole exercise

The circular economy now makes sense to us. What else must we do to make it a success?

The circular economy is only going to become bigger. Recently, there was a conversation that I was part of, about religious bodies anywhere in the country, especially Hindu religious sites, near a lake or a river. At these sites, we will find discarded pieces of cloth that were used for performing rituals, which is wasteful. If we could find a method to collect this cloth and use it, maybe 20% of India’s clothing problems will get solved.

The focus now will be on types of waste and ways to handle them. Today, we are stuck with plastic, electronics, paper, and batteries, especially with a growing emphasis on electric vehicles. We must figure out the use of excessive batteries that are going to be available so that they do not create toxic waste. Such social problems are catching the attention of start-ups. With hackathons and a focus on SDGs, a number of multilateral agencies and corporates plan to go beyond the government order of two percent CSR spending to create sustainable solutions. I believe attention will soon be on issues related to the circular economy. In the next couple of years, circular economy will be a $100 billion opportunity.

Tell us about your partnerships.

We already have partnerships with public bodies, religious bodies and some public institutions. So, there are deposit schemes, like when you buy a product which we think can come back, and if it can come back in a nice clean manner, then the value is enhanced. We want to make sure that this chain is established. We have implemented this in some parks, zoos, and religious bodies. We are in the process of making them scalable. Once that happens, I think we will see a lot more of these solutions. Deposit return systems are employed all over the world. Over 30 countries have these systems in place. Unfortunately, we do not have it in India and Recykal is now working to implement it in seven or eight places as we speak.

Circulate Capital, a Singapore-based investment management company, has made a strategic investment in Recykal. From the foundation perspective, we are talking to similar entities that are either focused on trying to find solutions for this community in their own countries or trying to find products that can veer away from ocean-bound or landfill-bound plastic. In these two areas, we are talking to people nationally and internationally about how we can adopt technology solutions that can help the community and engage people from the community. It is in an advanced stage of utilising recycled material to make products. For example, there is a company in Hyderabad that has recently raised a round of large funding to make shoes completely out of PET bottles. Then, there are companies globally that make products such as bottles out of ocean-bound plastic.

We are focused on seeing what more can happen. Today’s circular economy for most people is still a very business-to-business space. Our idea at the foundation is also to focus on how we can make this a business-to-consumer story so that every consumer feels involved and engaged in the concept.

With hackathons and focus on SDGs, a number of multilateral agencies and corporates plan to go beyond the government order of two percent CSR spending to create sustainable solutions

What kind of challenges does the foundation face?

The biggest challenge for us is to earn the trust of the Safai Mitra community. If they trust us, then they will talk to us about their problems. The second challenge is funding. The whole world is capital-focused when it comes to funding. Everyone wants to have their name on trust or on a building, but they forget that this trust or building has to be run by someone. There is an operating cost, which somebody needs to fund, and it does not come with a label. The last challenge is more from an ecosystem standpoint. It is about how we demonstrate measurable and transparent impact parameters.

We conducted an awareness programme that 5,000 people attended. Now, that’s not a measurement of impact, since we do not know how many kilos of waste were channelised by the 5,000 who attended. We are now working on these parameters at the foundation. We are working on how to create true, long-term impact measurements so that people can get what we call the social return on investment (SROI). Soon, we will have these parameters. So, if a corporation comes forward and says we are contributing ₹3 crore to help this community in six months, we should be able to go back and tell them that this is the SROI you got, which is measurable and quantifiable and they can put it on their annual report. So, not only did 5,000 people attend the programme, but that translated to 50 metric tonnes of materials not going to the landfill or ocean and 25,000 products being manufactured and creating an economy that benefited 5,000 people. All of us who are in the social sector are realising the importance of such hard numbers.

The writer is a media professional based in Delhi. She has been writing on diverse subjects, including sustainable businesses, environment and climate change, health and education and others.

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