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Almost 85 percent of ragpickers in the city of Mumbai are women who belong to the Dalit landless laborers community, the lowest caste in the caste system. Jyoti Mhapsekar organizes women who survive by ragpicking at city dumps into viable cooperatives, helps them win competitive contracts for waste-sorting and collection, and enables them to achieve economic independence and gain self-respect. In the process, she is promoting improved policies for waste management in India's urban areas.

This profile below was prepared when Jyoti Mhapsekar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.

Fellow Sketch

Jyoti Mhapsekar is lifting women waste-pickers out of the vicious cycle of poverty by organizing them into cooperatives and access better economic opportunities. In this process, Jyoti builds additional skills for these women so they can enter the formal job sector and reap other benefits while gaining self-respect. 

Starting from 1998 with 100 members, Jyoti first organised the women waste-pickers into self-help groups so they could collectively bid for waste management contracts for waste-sorting and collection. This changed the dynamics between the waste-pickers who earlier worked in silos and fought for territorial rights by bringing them together and increasing their incomes. Jyoti also leveraged the self-help groups to introduce financial, health and literacy schemes sponsored by the government that improved their quality of life. 

With an aim to help waste-pickers get out of their present condition, Jyoti started building additional skills through training programmes in 2000. Her organisation, Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) trained more than 1000 women waste-pickers in 2001 in composting and helped them bid and receive contracts for zero waste management projects in housing societies. Since, poverty is connected to livelihoods and caste, making it difficult to break the system until and unless you enter the system, Jyoti targeted professional maintenance service opportunities. This brought economic independence and professional interactions with societies that helped the women gain self-respect and confidence.

Jyoti ventured into biogas plants in 2003 in partnership with Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). She built 10 biogas plants and manages the maintenance for Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), BMC, Tata Power to name a few. The maintenance is provided by the women waste-pickers who are trained in biogas operations. One of their key projects is the TISS biogas plant where the women collect, segregate and convert wet-waste into biogas and manure for the campus’ canteen kitchens and gardens respectively. From the Svarna Jayanti Shehari Rozgari Yojana, SMS claimed land for waste storage and officially engaged with BMC to compost waste.

In 2006, Jyoti formally registered cooperatives and federations for waste-pickers bringing access to formal livelihoods to 3000 members. She helped women waste-pickers build their own strong network and developed different kinds of business models that flexibly adapt to locational needs so they function independently. The business models include collecting dry and non-medical waste for sale and setting up scrap shops for individual operations. Jyoti also introduced education and health programs for the waste-pickers’ children near the Deonar dumping ground and started a school based program talking about recycling. 

Jyoti is presently contributing to the Mumbai Development Plan to include composting and biogas plants for waste management. She started a formal training centre in Navi Mumbai in early 2014 to train women rag-pickers in managing biogas plants and composting and hopes to train and introduce more women waste-pickers to the formal work sector.

Note: This was updated in February, 2014. Read on for the ELECTION profile


Almost 85 percent of ragpickers in the city of Mumbai are women who belong to the Dalit landless laborers community, the lowest caste in the caste system. Jyoti Mhapsekar organizes women who survive by ragpicking at city dumps into viable cooperatives, helps them win competitive contracts for waste-sorting and collection, and enables them to achieve economic independence and gain self-respect. In the process, she is promoting improved policies for waste management in India's urban areas.


Jyoti is improving the lives of women who collect and sort garbage, demonstrating the value of their work to society, and changing the attitudes of the middle and upper classes toward them. Often called "ragpickers," these women are among the most disadvantaged groups in India. Jyoti's organization, Stree Mukti Sangathana (SMS), educates and trains these women and organizes them into labor cooperatives. As a result, they are able to increase their bargaining power and develop leadership skills. As the women become more informed of their rights as citizens, they gain confidence in dealing with middlemen in the garbage management system.


The women also form savings groups, which double as working and training groups. SMS teaches techniques for dry-garbage sorting, vermiculture, bio-composting wet garbage, and gardening. To date, one hundred thirty groups, each with between ten to fifteen women, have been established. Eighty of these groups are joining together in a federation. Jyoti is also partnering with government and neighborhood groups to bring better wages and opportunities to the women ragpickers.


Mumbai's dry garbage industry is well-organized, with men controlling the more profitable business of transporting cleaned garbage to the wholesaler and to the factories for recycling. Women, however, are at the bottom of the hierarchy in this business, and generally collect and sort the mixed city waste that municipal workers unload at the city dumps. According to a 1998 survey of women ragpickers, 90 percent are primary breadwinners for their families and many lack financial support for their children, sometimes as a result of having been widowed or deserted by their husbands. Exploited by society and by the middlemen in garbage management, they carry heavy loads and face serious health hazards in the dumping grounds in which they work.


Forced into ragpicking by poverty, illiteracy, and lack of skills, Mumbai's Dalit women have few options aside from performing the menial task of "cleaning" waste. Initiatives begun to help these women often fail because of shifting municipal policies. Discrimination–coupled with lack of understanding of their rights–gives the women little opportunity to improve their circumstances. The more affluent residents in the city do not recognize, value, or reward these women for the vital role they play in keeping the city clean by collecting and sorting the garbage along roadsides at designated dumps.


Establishing partnerships with municipal authorities and other groups to assist in garbage collection and improve the conditions of the dumps is an essential part of Jyoti's overall strategy. These partnerships make the women's lives easier and healthier and help women win lucrative contracts with housing projects within Mumbai. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), for example, has agreed to endorse the work of ragpickers, help them to access garbage at certain municipal markets, and to separate garbage at source. She has also secured MCGM's help in conducting primary research about the state of the ragpicking industry. A recent study about the living standards of ragpickers led MCGM to draw the women into a government program called Suvanra Jayanti Rozgar Yojna or the Golden Jubilee Income Scheme. The first 80 savings groups to complete a year will be given Rs 10,000 (approx. $200) as a corpus fund. The scheme acts as incentive for other women to form savings groups.


Jyoti also works with women's groups and other citizen-led organizations to provide education, health services, and employment opportunities to the women. Jyoti is introducing women ragpickers to the broader women's rights movement so that they can view their life situations and struggles within a broader context. For example, by attending rallies organized on Women's Day, they have learned about their rights as women and as human beings. While targeting women ragpickers, Jyoti also seeks to raise awareness about women's rights among all classes of society. A successful playwright, Jyoti wrote her first play–Mulgi Zali Ho, or A Girl Is Born–in 1980. Translated into five languages, this play has been performed frequently throughout India and also made an appearance at the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995. Jyoti hopes that organizing women ragpickers into cooperatives will enable them to have a greater impact on India's environmental movement, while changing attitudes toward them.

Originating from farming communities, these women are capable of converting biodegradable material into bio-compost. As the ragpickers' environment-friendly work gains visibility, the public will begin to view them positively and buy their eco-friendly products like bio- and vermin-compost. Further, this will open up income generating opportunities other than in collecting and sorting waste. Educating the public, and particularly the middle class, about waste management is an important component of Jyoti's work as well. She reaches the public through plays, songs, poster exhibitions, and films to raise awareness among the women and inform middle-class communities about waste separation. Jyoti believes that separating trash at the source should be made mandatory, and that those who generate large amounts of garbage should pay an environmental tax whose proceeds could fund social security schemes for garbage workers. She plans to bring about these changes over the next five years.


Born to parents who were freedom fighters, Jyoti was brought up in an environment where political debates, discussions, protest rallies, and patriotic songs were common. Her father was a political worker, and her mother was a school teacher who had worked hard to establish two secondary schools for the poor in Mumbai. Jyoti attended both schools and went on to study zoology and library science in college, and post-graduation in sociology.


In 1975, Jyoti and six of her friends established SMS to improve the lives of disadvantaged women. Today, SMS is the leading women's organization in Mumbai, and Jyoti is recognized as a leader in the women's movement and an accomplished playwright and songwriter. She has helped establish several organizations including the Committee of Resource Organization (CORO), and Women Playwrights International. In 1996, SMS won a grant to a run a nursery in an area where ragpickers lived. It was then that Jyoti turned her attention to the plight of women engaged in rag picking. Jyoti now plans to quit her job as a librarian at the Academy of Architecture and devote herself full-time to realizing her vision.