If you cross over the DND bridge in Delhi to Atta market in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, you will see the incongruous sight of a well-heeled young man with gold-rimmed shades taking an unusual interest in the sweeping of streets and the collection and dumping of garbage into a truck nearby.
If you follow him for the remainder of the day, you will see him hopscotching from one Noida neighbourhood to another, chatting up his workers, monitoring door-to-door collections of trash, the sorting of it in a nearby landfill and finally the transportation of a lucrative haul of recyclables to a warehouse nearby. “This is a 99 per cent operations job,” he says with a shrug. “There’s no other way to run this business.”
This is Manik Thapar, 30, already a veteran of the garbage business and one of its most unlikely crusaders. After all, Thapar studied at St Joseph’s in Nainital, did a stint at an Australian boarding school, studied automotive marketing during his undergraduate years in Toronto, and spent two years in Michigan doing an MBA. This is where a summer project on the waste management business began to get his cog wheels churning.
His return to Delhi in 2005 to start Ecowise, a business in the world of garbage, could seem distinctly deranged to most Indians, who prefer to voyage in the opposite direction and work in industries that require anything but being surrounded by filth for much of the day. Predictably, his mother, who had made Toronto her home, was appalled by his decision. “When he first started off, I remember asking him ‘Are you sure you want to get into such a dirty business?'” says Ravi Agarwal, a well-known expert on hazardous waste. “He’s doing good work and has taken on a really tough challenge.”
What was most unusual about Thapar’s business was his early decision to not just incorporate ragpickers into his workforce, but to treat them like any corporation would its employees. He pays Rs 65,000 a month in the form of rent for two plots of land on which he has built 74 living units. Each of these comes with electricity and access to common toilets and water taps. Any health costs are taken care of by Ecowise. “Ten-15 per cent of my profits go into supporting my employees,” says Thapar. The salary per person starts at Rs 9,000 and can go up to Rs 30,000. This means that any one family has the opportunity to make up to Rs 55,000.
This has translated into good relationships with his workers. Thapar hasn’t experienced chronic strikes that have hobbled waste management companies such as A2Z in cities like Kanpur. Still, while it took four years for Ecowise to grow to Rs 1 crore in revenues, it took six years to break even. Then came a windfall of contracts from the Noida Authority, which propelled the company’s revenues to Rs 5 crore in just a year. Thapar says it will take another 10 years for the company to try and grow into a national one with targeted revenues of Rs 100 crore.
Thapar’s relative success comes from his ability to devise and operate an “umbrella model”- an end-to-end approach, focusing on transportation, segregation, treatment and disposal, which span all aspects of the value chain. Here, revenue streams are leveraged during collections (fee-based, from households, malls, hotels), segregation and disposal (contract from Noida Authority) and the sale of recyclables and scrap to industry.
Yet, Ecowise’s growth didn’t come easy. After putting Rs 15 lakh of his own money into buying a Tata Ace and a few carts seven years ago, Thapar had to build the business systematically by understanding it from ground-up. This meant figuring out the various roles the kabadi syndicate, sweeper syndicate and the residents welfare associations (RWA) play in the business. His biggest obstacle? “The mindset of Indians,” he says, pointing to a large house in Noida housing an Audi A6 that costs around Rs 40 lakh. “They’ve been refusing to pay Rs 30 a month for their trash collection.”
“There is a typical middle class attitude against the working class, and even more so against those working in garbage,” says Lakshmi Narayanan, who was responsible for unionising the ragpickers in Pune and fought hard to have them formally incorporated into the city’s labour force. In 2008, about 2,500 of them were officially contracted by the municipal authority in the city to collect trash from 400,000 households, where each worker would have a fixed catchment area of 150-250 households. Around Rs 4,500 is generated from household ‘user fees’ per month per worker, while another Rs 4,000 per individual is made selling recyclables. Today, they have identity cards, safety equipment and spiffy, blue uniforms. “They’ve seen a huge increase in the quality of their lives with reduced hours, less stress, and better wages. They can now live with dignity,” adds Narayanan.
This is enough proof for both municipalities and companies that a solution to incorporate ragpickers is readily at hand. Now, all that is required is the will to bring about change.