The ‘Invaluables’ – a campaign to end discrimination against waste collectors

In India, we are lifting the cloak of invisibility around informal waste pickers, making their contributions to the city of Bengaluru more visible. Our social experiment is building empathy, respect, dignity and social acceptance.

The ‘Invaluables’ is our new campaign designed to shift perceptions about waste picking and informal waste pickers in the city of Bengaluru.

India’s information technology hub and the capital of southern Indian state of Karnataka, Bengaluru is home to over 22,500 waste pickers, and generates nearly 5,757 metric tonnes of solid waste per day. Despite being a critical part of the city’s solid waste management system, the waste pickers and their families suffer many hardships and challenges.

Our research showed that, despite caring deeply about waste on the streets, and appreciative of formal waste collectors, the people of Bengaluru do not recognise the humans behind informal waste pickers, who remain virtually invisible. Stigma and negative attitudes persist; nearly 55% of respondents said that informal waste pickers are dirty in appearance and 56% believed they shouldn’t be allowed in building complexes and societies.

Women waste pickers are particularly vulnerable, facing abuse by men in the neighbourhoods and violence at home.

Our project is part of the H&M Foundation-funded Saamuhika Shakti Collective Impact initiative, intended to improve the lives of informal waste pickers in Bengaluru. We aim to lift this shroud of invisibility and make their contribution to the city of Bengaluru more visible to the general public.

How we did it: ‘A Pathway to Respect, Identity, Dignity and Empowerment’ (PRIDE)

“For informal waste pickers to experience greater social acceptance, we believe that there is a need to change the way the people of Bengaluru think and feel about waste pickers,” says Priyanka Dutt, Country Director, BBC Media Action, India.

Central to our initiative is a social experiment that connects people to an ‘Invaluables’ Facebook community. Actress Radhika Narayan moderated our social experiment with a diverse set of Bengaluru residents, probing their notion of friends and the value of friendships. The experiment reveals the ‘Invaluable’ friends of the people of Bengaluru: friends they never knew they had, who have always stood by them.

“We hope to help people travel a journey - from waste pickers being seen as ‘dirty’, to being recognised as doing important, skilled work that contributes to society and the environment,” Priyanka continues.

Watch the social experiment about the ‘Invaluables’ initiative here.

Well-know Bengaluru residents including author Anuja Chauhan, actor Radhika Narayan, cricketer Robin Uthappa, comic and actor Shradha Jain, and actor Swetha Changappa have joined the intensive two-month initiative, launched in April 2021.

"[For] too long waste pickers and the role they play in our lives have been invisible. This invisibility has resulted in silence – no questions, no conversation - on social media and elsewhere,” says Radharani Mitra, our Global Creative Advisor. “We wanted people to discover that waste pickers do what friends do for us, without us being aware at all! We hope this social experiment and the Invaluables group will help shift how waste pickers are seen: from being invisible, to being invaluable.”

Sparking a realisation and igniting a conversation

The ‘Invaluables’ Facebook community helps build connections by revealing more about the waste-pickers’ lives, stories, work and talents.

Radhika Narayan, a Kannada film actor, said: “During the pandemic, it became even more evident that waste pickers protect our homes and localities by removing waste that could be potentially harmful to us. They do it at great risk even now. Before conducting this social experiment, even I wouldn't have realised the kind of difference they are making to our lives.”

Author Anuja Chauhan, who has also joined Invaluables Facebook community said: “Waste pickers serve an important societal function by picking up, cleaning, sorting, and segregating recyclable waste and selling it further up the value chain. But they lack social acceptance and dignity.

“We need to truly see them as invaluable to society and to the community at large and accord them due respect.”

The Saamuhika Shakti project aims to improve the lives of waste pickers in a holistic and sustainable manner, and to ensure they have greater agency to lead secure and dignified lives.

One of the challenges is the indignities they suffer due to a lack of knowledge of and respect for the invaluable role they play in the waste management eco-system,” says Executive Director, Lakshmi Pattabi Raman, The/Nudge Foundation. “We invite the residents of Bengaluru to be a part of the Invaluables programme and become change agents for an equitable Bengaluru for all its citizens.”

Maria Bystedt, Strategy Lead, H&M Foundation added, “An important pillar of our work is the belief that communication in itself can be a change maker and spark action. It can contribute to changes in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, and even policies and regulations. We are proud to support the ‘Invaluables’ campaign which we believe is an important piece of the puzzle to improve the lives of waste pickers. For a sound and robust waste management system to exist, there needs to be recognition of those that carry that system on their shoulders.”