Where Do I Start?

For now, here’s where my heads at.


Anish Malpani

3 years ago | 6 min read

I have been on a nervy adventure of starting a social enterprise focused on multidimensional poverty here in India. For those that have been following, some of y’all are probably wondering — dude, get with it already. Noted, noted, almost there.

For now, here’s where my heads at.

When it comes to starting a social enterprise, it’s super important to understand your burning, or the depth of the problem you care about. It’s a never-ending process, but probably the most important.

Over the past three years, I have been fortunate to have the resources to really understand the poverty space. I took all that and some of the skills I have nurtured to break down the problem in the detail that I needed. If you’re curious, here it is in all its pomp. If not, then this is what’s relevant:

~300 million people in India (or ~22%) are multidimensionally poor, and below is how they break out by occupation.

Based on the 2012 India Human Development Survey (IHDS) and my calculations.

~79% of all poor workers in India (~62 million) work either in agriculture or construction. Low skilled factory workers come third at 3%, which is substantially lower. The rest are 2% or less.

So if I was to follow my own research, it’s pretty clear. Focus on farmers. And if I want an urban life, focus on construction workers. Those are the biggest pieces of the poverty pie and they need the most amount of attention.

But that’s not what has been on my mind.

I have been drawn to the waste management space (specifically solid waste) in India for a couple of reasons.

One because it employs some of the poorest — waste pickers, scavengers, rag pickers. And two, because there is value in waste that can fuel financial sustainability while making mother earth better.

With regards to the first reason, there isn’t a whole lot of data available that isolates the poorest in the waste management space. Case in point: the data set I used in that graph-y analysis mentioned earlier.

Out of the 50,000+ entries that were collected, I found maybe ten or twelve entries that had their job description as “waste picker” or a Hindi-equivalent.

Some were grouped under agriculture, some under construction, some under coolies, some under sweepers, but to cut a long story short, this is not a category that’s looked at closely from a macro research perspective.

There is probably some overlap with the “sweepers” category and there might be some noise in the “sanitation workers” category, but it is not explicit. And that matters because being a municipal sanitation worker versus a rag picker is significantly different.

Here’s an excerpt from Assa Doran and Robin Jeffrey’s excellent book, Waste Of A Nation that throws light on this darkness (emphasis my own):

On the frontline of rubbish recovery are the people who collect waste. Scavengers, waste-pickers, ragpickers — by whatever name they are called, they carry a burden of poverty and prejudice.

They are commonly regarded as dirty people, dislocated migrants, indifferent to basic hygiene. Their scavenging of open dumps is taken as an affront to social order and urban sanitation.

And the fact that they work in places that were once regarded as no one’s land, or the commons, but now are often claimed by the state or private owners makes them ready targets for police harassment. Little is mentioned about the effects of their work in reducing the amount of rubbish destined for landfills.

The most vulnerable scavengers work in grim conditions on mountainous landfills, such as Deonar in Mumbai, Okhla in Delhi, Dhapa in Kolkata, Kodungaiyur in Chennai, and less prominent dumps like Belgachia at Howrah in West Bengal.

Estimates put scavengers’ life expectancy at thirty-nine years. In their search for defecation space and salvageable materials, adults and children have learned to tread lightly.

At Deonar “there are cracks and crevasses” that can trip, and even swallow, waste-pickers, Doron was told when he visited the smoldering mountain, “and kids inhale the toxic fumes” spewed by the mountain. In 2017, a landslide at another site, East Delhi’s giant Ghazipur dump, killed two people.

The usual competition on open dumpsites comes from rats, dogs, pigs, monkeys, and birds — all thriving on mixed rubbish. For ragpickers, sporadic fires generate an acrid haze that makes breathing difficult and presents the greatest health risk. Waste workers register high levels of tuberculosis.
Doron, Assa. Waste of a Nation (pp. 211–212). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Also, Kaveri Gill wrote an entire book on poverty and waste-pickers based on her research in Delhi. It’s a little dated (2007–10), but she does have estimates for amounts they earn. When adjusted for inflation, waste-pickers make about 30% less than urban construction workers and low-skilled factory workers.

High-level estimates peg the the number of waste pickers in urban India between 3 and 5 million. Another excerpt from Doran and Jeffrey on how elusive a real number really is:

“The census does not have an occupational category for ragpickers or waste-pickers. In New Delhi, a common estimate was that between 200,000 and 350,000 people worked as waste-pickers in an urban area of 16 million people in 2011.

Rough calculations suggest that India’s 53 cities with populations of more than 1 million support close to 2 million waste-pickers, and its 465 cities with populations between 100,000 and a million sustain a further 1.5 million.

At that rate, urban India in 2011 had at least 3.5 million people handling waste every day, and these calculations do not include the manual scavengers who clean the dry latrines described in Chapter 3.”
Doron, Assa. Waste of a Nation (p. 189). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

For the record, there are also about 2.5 million “manual scavengers” who jump into sewers and cesspits, and I am not even looking to focus on them for now.

How do you quantify this sort of poverty? Of a group that barely gets isolated from a research perspective. Of a group whose life expectancy seems so absurdly low that it’s hard to believe.

Of a group that competes with rats, dogs, pigs, monkeys and birds. Of a group comprising low caste folks and stigmatized minorities that either way get treated like shit. What statistical weight do I put on what factors to spit out an index that quantifies inhumanity?

Look, this does not mean that being a poor farmer or a poor construction worker or a poor tobacco product maker isn’t as bad. Those lives need uplifting as well, and in some dimensions, even more than waste-pickers. For instance, urban tobacco product makers earn almost half of what urban waste-pickers earn.

And when it comes to poor farmers and poor construction workers, we have already seen that in absolutes, they encompass countries worth of people.

But where do waste-pickers lie in a world where even holistic data evades them? Even if there was data available, it’s not just as simple as what the “data says”.

There are other philosophical factors at play here that are almost impossible to program in while contemplating starting a social enterprise. Such as the importance of a viable starting point, the future of work, the probability of success (where the metric is the # of people lifted out of multidimensional poverty) and the scalability potential of a model with high, untapped intrinsic value.

Each of these factors could probably do with an entire book worth of explanations, but I’ll spare you the additional dramatic justifications, at least for now.

Or maybe I am overthinking it? Rationalizing my gut in true Haidt-ian fashion? Maybe it is as simple as what the data says and I just focus on farmers and construction workers and tobacco product makers?

This back and forth isn’t startlingly novel, so it’s not like Jesus has returned and I need to reevaluate everything. It has been hovering around for a while. The only difference now is that it is time to make a decision.


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Anish Malpani







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