BIHAR, India — In the small city of Katihar, nestled near the border of Bihar and West Bengal in northeastern India, there rages a war over trash.
On the one side there is a group of cleaners, mainly women from lower castes, dressed all in green. They have begun offering a door-to-door service, collecting the garbage people used to throw in the street.
On the other side are the municipal workers who fear the newcomers will steal their jobs. And in the middle, there are piles and piles of trash.
Katihar is like many semi-urban cities in India where the government is struggling to manage solid waste and drainage. While the private sector plugs some holes, smaller NGOs are also coming forward.
It may seem logical that the severe sanitation crisis in India would demand an all-hands-on-deck approach. Instead, the different players often bump into each other — mainly due to mismanagement of resources, bureaucratic inefficiencies, corruption and lack of infrastructure — which causes friction.
In Katihar, the cleaning women, organized by a non-governmental organization called Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), have collided with the local power structure.
Every morning, the cleaners stand outside each house and blow their whistles. Residents bring their trash outside, since most prefer the "untouchables" don't enter their homes.
“This job brings stability,” said Rajni Devi, a 30-year-old cleaner. “We know where the next meal is coming from and we can think about sending our children to school.”
But good news for these women is bad for the competition. The municipal cleaners resent the newcomers and are scared of losing their jobs.
Tensions between the two sides have, at times, boiled over. In one row, state cleaners allegedly roughed up the independent cleaning women and broke their dustbins.
“We did not want to hurt them, but who are they to take our jobs?” asked a municipal cleaner speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The municipal cleaners are locked in a constant battle with the government as well. Many of them receive low wages and never become “permanent” employees of the government, which means no post-retirement pension. “It isn’t easy for us to live on pittance,” said the municipal worker.
“We don’t want NGO workers here," the worker continued. "How can we get the government to meet our demands if they are a substitute to do the work?”
The SEWA cleaners say they don't pose a direct threat. “They hit us and tore our saris,” said Rajni Devi, a 30-year-old cleaner. “They never went door-to-door for garbage collection … we are not taking their jobs.”
SEWA cleaning women at a meeting in Bihar.
For the SEWA cleaning program, each household pays 30 rupees (less than $1) per month for the pickup. The women earn 2,800 Rs. ($61) a month, which works out to just about the country’s minimum wage of Rs. 100 ($2) a day.
“We wanted to show that waste collection and management can and should be inclusive … generate employment ... and also make the city clean,” said Renana Jhabvala, the head of SEWA.
The goal is to make these projects sustainable so they survive after the NGO leaves. If the income becomes stable, the cleaning women will be advised to pool together some their monthly earnings and deposit it in the SEWA Cooperative Bank, which lends to self-employed women on low interest so they don’t have to borrow from a moneylender.
But increasingly, informal sanitation workers from poor communities, especially waste pickers who have been integral to the cleaning landscape, are being marginalized in plans being proposed for big cities.
“Now the solutions being proposed and implemented by cities do not take into account the concerns of these informal sector women,” said Jhabvala. “They displace the waste collectors, the poorest of the poor.”
The Indian government has privatized several sectors from telecommunication to building roads, and sanitation is now coming under the umbrella of public-private partnerships.
In Gujarat’s Ahmedabad city, for example, a group of cleaning women also organized by SEWA is losing out to private cleaning contractors engaged by the government.
In Katihar, the quarrel between the parties has led to the SEWA cleaning women leaving some of the neighborhoods completely.
“We don’t want to expand anymore until a solution can be found,” said Kavita Pathak, who oversees operations for SEWA. The group is now in negotiations with local officials to try to find some way for the various cleaning factions to coexist.
Some residents were sorry to see the SEWA cleaners go. But most don’t want to pay extra for a service that is supposedly covered by their tax money.
The SEWA cleaning women say city cleaners let the trash rot for days and during the rains people have to hike up their dresses to avoid stepping in muck.
“Nobody likes living in filth and these women were doing a job worth my money,” said a man from a locality the group has now left.