Interview: Cloud drives Bangalore rag picker revolution

After years working in London for Mindtree, Prashant Mehra returned to Bangalore to help transform the lives of 1.5 million waste pickers in the city and make local government waste management more efficient

After years working in London for the UK operation of IT services company Mindtree, Prashant Mehra returned to Bangalore to help transform the lives of the city’s 1.5 million rag pickers and improve local government waste management in the process.

Underpinned by a cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, the project has grouped waste pickers together in franchises and cooperatives to provide services to the local community. The project shows how the combination of cloud and mobile technology can organise India’s unorganised sectors.

Mehra is the project manager of Mindtree’s I Got Garbage initiative. This cloud-based platform is part of a corporate social initiative that aims to help India’s rag pickers organise themselves as small businesses to improve their lives and help boost recycling in India.

In India waste is not separated. The Bangalore government relies on over one and a half million rag pickers to separate and recycle waste. This is extremely dangerous work and life expectancy among the pickers, who earn $1 a day, is very low due to illness.

To support local government in boosting recycling and to improve the health and living standards of the waste pickers, Mindtree created I Got Garbage, a centralised system that offers ERP in the cloud for waste pickers. “This waste management ERP is customised to the business model and how the rag pickers work,” says Mehra.

Traditionally, waste pickers scour rubbish dumps to find anything that can be reused. They then sell it on to a small local shop, which in turn sells it on to a recycling centre before it goes to an aggregation unit for sorting and reuse. In terms of waste volumes handled, waste pickers probably handle between 50kg and 80kg a day, small shops between 100kg and 150kg, recycling centres between 3,000kg and 4,000kg and the aggregation centres up to 100,000kg. Non-recyclable waste goes to landfill.

Mehra says that waste pickers, like any business, can benefit from a centralised system to organise activity. A centralised platform now helps match pickers directly with households and businesses that want waste services, and link pickers to small shops for selling on recyclables.

But first the project had to change how pickers work to enable them to benefit from the central hub. Typically, rag pickers would not be given access to garbage by householders. “They are not usually welcome on the doorstep but the first thing we do is get them a uniform and train them so they can work directly with households,” says Mehra. 

This means the pickers no longer have to go to the garbage dump to collect recyclables. 

Once registered, the pickers are geo-tagged on a database so they can be alerted when a household or business requires a service.

The platform connects the pickers with the small local shops that buy the recyclables. “We have 5,000 buyers in Bangalore registered on the system,” says Mehra. These, like the pickers, are all geo-tagged. “You can match the buyer with the picker. This is critical because the sale has to be made as quickly as possible to avoid waste being thrown away.”

The platform has also helped pickers work together as groups in a franchise where they can offer waste management services. Each franchise will be made up of about five uniformed pickers. For a fee they take all the waste from households and businesses, selling on recyclables and disposing of other waste appropriately, such as composting food waste.

Checks are built into the system, with collections recorded to ensure the pickers do not just dump non-valuable waste but take it to the appropriate place. 

An app has been developed to make contact with the waste pickers. “One of the first challenges was how to reach the rag pickers. We created a tablet-based app to enable pickers to do a self-assessment. This app used pictures because most pickers cannot read.”

This is something the project is trying to address. The small franchises are grouped into cooperatives. The fee from the customer is paid to the cooperative, which pays a token salary and collects resources to help pay for the education of pickers’ children. This benefit is on top of what the pickers make from selling on recyclables.

Another benefit of the database is that the waste pickers’ details are logged. The system can then match up the skills that pickers possess with the services required by businesses and households. “Most of the pickers come from rural areas and are skilled farmers. If households require gardening services we can match them with a picker with the skill needed,” explains Mehra.

“We are trying to rehabilitate them into gardening.”

Now Mindtree hopes the success of I Got Garbage will lead to other platforms for other disadvantaged groups in India by using the same basic centralised cloud platform, known as the Livelihood Domain, in other sectors.

Mehra says: “For the last 20 years I have built systems for retail and finance firms. What IT is doing for enterprises is giving them control of content. You can do that and more for the local community. That’s why we created the Livelihood Domain.” This begins with a shared ERP platform that can be tailored for different sectors.

According to Mehra, half the working population in India is made up of sole traders. He says the platform will help these very small businesses come together. “I Got Garbage is the first sector to use the Livelihood platform, but more could follow.

“People have been living with a lack of hope for a long time and we have to give them belief.”

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