Based out of Pune, SWaCH started in 1993. It's a public-private partnership formed by Kagad Kach Patra Kashatakari Panchayat. With 9000 members, it is India's first and largest cooperation formed through the joint effort of Pune Municipal Corporation and KKPKP. Annually, SWaCH collects waste from 8.4 lakh property saving over 100 crores for the municipal corporation.

In conversation with Nidhi Choudhary of TheEarthView, Suchismita Pai, the outreach head of SWaCH talks about initiatives and plans to bring awareness on responsible and sustainable waste management.

Q.) Apart from door-to-door collection of waste, what other initiatives you work on? Please throw some light on other activities and initiatives.

Suchismita: Other than door-to-door collection, we do various other activities like Red Dot Awareness. Red Dot Awareness is an alternative solution provided by SWaCH which includes the responsible disposal of sanitary products into newspapers with a red dot on it, which helps workers to not be exposed to multiple deadly pathogens, including staphylococcus, hepatitis, E Coli and salmonella. The Red Dots campaign came into picture because the waste pickers realised that handling the body waste can be done more hygienically. With awareness when you talk on menstrual health, it also extends to the disposal of the diaper or the pads used. There is also awareness needed to use other menstrual alternatives other than pads like menstrual cups.

Another initiative is Nirmalaya Collection, for Ganesh Utsav. We divert over 100 tons of wet and dry waste away from the river to avoid choking the water bodies, eventually ends up polluting flora and fauna. Other than these, we also do MLP collection, V collection, composting services, recycling trail and waste collection at events.

Q.) What is the vision behind this idea?

Suchismita: It is identity creation and empowerment for women. Frontline waste pickers are a critical agent of change for our society. There has been no realisation and respect for waste pickers. We overlook the contribution and important role that these workers play in making our life and place livable. Earlier they just did it because they thought it was just a medium to earn money.

Today over 60% of SWaCH workers are women. We have been successful in creating an identity for them. It's more than just a job for these workers. Its identity with purpose.

Q.) Tell us about the e-waste collection and collaboration with MPCB?

Suchismita: We are the first one to have this authorisation in Pune. Every state has its own pollution control board and is authorised by the board to collect the E-Waste. We have a certification from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board as an e-waste disposal partner.

Q.) What difference do you think you are making through this platform? And also, how aware are people about responsibly depositing their waste?

Suchismita: We are giving an identity to the waste pickers and empowering women for sure. Our motto is to live by the 3R's Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Our aim is a better planet for the future.

Q.) SWaCH has been working with waste-pickers. Tell us something about the lives of waste pickers and how it is making a difference with their lives?

Sushismita: Training and educating is our prime focus. Proper disposal of waste, which is also a plus point of them educating people in their surroundings. For example, during this corona pandemic when people were working from home, there was no way that these people would have worked from home, as waste is a constant thing. So, in these challenging times, we trained them to wear a mask and maintain hygiene not only when collecting waste but also how they can utilise this in their day-to-day life. Talking about the identity before working here, they were not aware that what they did was work, now there is evidence that this is work. They also have their own identity in society.

Q.) What are some significant challenges you have faced through the journey?

Suchismita: Initially getting people together was a challenge for us. Imagine getting 3500 people together, today SWaCH has 3500 people active. Even when we started, there were over 1500 people on the same platform, especially when many of them are uneducated is not so easy. Getting people to segregate waste at their end is immensely challenging its still 86% of waste segregation. Waste segregation education is an ongoing activity, e-waste, dry, wet, sanitary, all need to be followed.

Then, as the population grows, the problems associated with it also grow like litter. Today we are also covering slums, which is again not an easy pocket to cover because people are not aware of the waste.

We also face problems, as some societies don't allow waste pickers to access their properties public taps and toilets. But initially, maybe there were 100 of them not allowing it. Sometimes when we are not aware, we tend to not be involved. But now people are more aware and cooperative about the initiatives we have taken, and slowly the picture is changing.

Q.) What is that one message you would like to give to people?

Suchismita: I would tell everybody that waste management is a big problem and everybody should pay attention to it. It's not something you can sweep under the carpet just because you kept the waste bins outside of your home doesn't mean that the waste is gone or is deposited responsibly. Just because it is out of sight does not mean it's gone. People should give more attention towards the waste they have created and also to the people who help them deposit their waste correctly. Whether it is a local waste picker or a sanitation worker, they have to pay more attention and respect, and both can do a responsible job together.