The Nirmalaya Project: Waste Pickers Educate Pune’s Citizens


The Nirmalaya Collection and Recycling project aims to reduce pollution by diverting the nirmalaya offerings that accompany the Ganapati idols into the river when they are immersed. Waste pickers can testify to the huge volume of nirmalaya offerings –paper, plastic, thermocol, flowers, coconuts, fruits – that ends up choking the river. Waste pickers used to feel that so many edible items and recyclables just being thrown away was a terrible waste, so they evolved a project that would safeguard the rivers, encourage composting, salvage the edible items, and send the non-biodegradable items into the correct disposal stream. In an interesting reversal of the usual roles, the “less educated” waste pickers are now educating more privileged citizens about how not to pollute.

The waste pickers have set an excellent example of good citizenship by widening the circle of their concern from door-to-door waste collection to encompass Pune’s rivers. While other citizens express surprise and congratulate SWaCH on this initiative, the waste pickers themselves see the nirmalaya collection as a logical extension of their work as pro-environment activists. “Reduce, re-use and recycle” is not just an empty slogan for them.

This year, to encourage citizen participation, SWaCH put up posters on campuses, posted calls for volunteers in the newspapers, and used social media platforms to reach out. Volunteers were given a formal hands-on orientation to make them fully appreciate the importance of the work they were doing. On the immersion days, they were present on the ghats wearing their distinctive green arm-bands. The results are amazing: nirmalaya collection by SWaCH has increased from 31 tonnes in 2010 to a massive 90 tonnes in 2012 and 97 tonnes in 2013! As SWaCH member Shobha Bansode said, “This year the results were so visible…. the rivers looked so clean. We are happy that we were able to contribute.”

The Nirmalaya Project started on a small scale six years back on just one or two ghats and with only a few waste pickers. After SWaCH Cooperative was formed in 2008, however, the project became more structured. Today, the Pune Municipal Corporation also supports the effort.

Apart from citizens’ groups, SWaCH reaches out to corporates who are encouraged to view “adopting a ghat” as a facet of their on-going CSR work. “Adopting a ghat” means providing financial support for honorariums of waste pickers, transportation costs, composting expenses, banners and printing, etc. and administrative support through the involvement of employees.

Volunteers say they derive immense satisfaction by helping to achieve an easily quantifiable target.

This year, volunteers came in large numbers from Cummins company, Emcure, Rotary Club of Kothrud and Baner, Fergusson College, Modern College, Wadia College, Huzurpaga School, Mastermind School, and the Symbiosis School of Economics, along with several individual volunteers.

Sameer Varate, a volunteer from Katraj said, “The work that waste pickers are doing on the ghats during the Ganapati festival is truly commendable. We hope they continue to do so in the years to come.”

Another volunteer, Mrs. Hazare from Bharati Vidyapeeth, congratulated SWaCH for “this well-organized collection drive.”

SWaCH supports other organizations and social causes through the composting element of the project. This year, the bio-degradable nirmalaya has been sent for composting to Kothrud Blind School, Dilasa School, Sangam World Centre, Aundh Ramp, SWaCH Office – Kothrud and Katraj Ramp.

The Nirmalaya Collection and Recycling Project is yet another example of the efforts that waste pickers are making towards creating a better Pune for all.