Ravi Agarwal is changing the urban waste management system in India by involving local communities and the informal sector of rag pickers in waste disposal, and by advocating for a cleaner materials policy in industry.

This profile below was prepared when Ravi Agarwal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.


Ravi Agarwal is changing the urban waste management system in India by involving local communities and the informal sector of rag pickers in waste disposal, and by advocating for a cleaner materials policy in industry.


Ravi Agarwal is dealing with urban waste in a comprehensive process that is suited to Indian conditions. He sees two key aspects to the challenge. "The first is to make the waste management system more responsive and involve communities in it, without sacrificing the very efficient and employment generating informal sector; and the second is to initiate measures which tackle the creation of waste at the source itself."

To meet the first challenge he has introduced rag pickers' collectives in six communities in Delhi. The rag pickers are employed by the communities to collect, segregate, compost, and recycle waste at the site. Ravi explains why it works: "It has to be a win win situation for all. The rag pickers need formal employment, recognition, and better conditions to work in, and those who live in colonies [residential areas] need more cleanliness." Recognition of the success of these projects will also define community waste managers, especially rag pickers, as a formal workforce. "Our initiative marks the beginning of a new waste policy," Ravi explains. "The policy will reverse official apathy for the unorganized sector of rag pickers and turn a dynamic, informal human chain into a formal workforce with fiscal and other incentives."

The waste policy that Ravi envisions also extends to the problem of waste creation at the other end of the waste stream. To address this second challenge, he is building a market for more responsible industry that internalizes the true cost of a product, ensures a safe and proper path for it after it has been used, and shifts away from the use of hazardous and untreatable materials. Ravi and the organization that provides his institutional base have been decisive voices in India's public appraisals of waste management, which included a ban in 1996 on the incineration of polyvinyl chloride, the first of its kind in the world.


With the suspected outbreak of the plague in various parts of India in 1994, the problem of waste management came into sharp national focus. Waste is generated from a variety of sources, but owing to its quantity and its high visibility, municipal solid waste has been the most evaluated. The estimated quantity generated per day in Delhi is estimated at 5,000 tons (based on a per capita generation of 500 grams per day for the total population of 9.5 million people.) On average, 20 to 30 percent of the waste generated remains uncollected and is a cause of environmental degradation and disease (data provided by Fellow).

Though the central government has various important functions in terms of setting policy and providing support for waste management, the actual cleanliness of a city is its own responsibility. Municipal waste collection services are centralized and generally characterized by poor work ethics and absenteeism among employees. In addition, the main municipalities of Delhi finance garbage collection and disposal largely through property taxes. Since an estimated 35 percent or more of Delhi's population live in slums and pay no property tax, they usually receive no sanitation services.

A significant portion of Delhi's waste stream (10 to15 percent) is collected and recycled by rag pickers. Since segregation at source is not practiced in households, the members of this informal sector act as the first level of collection by rummaging in municipal bins for materials with any economic value, which they channel into a distribution network of small traders and recycling operations. In 1995 the Delhi government passed an order banning their activity on the pretext that they contributed to the spread of the suspected plague. The action was never actually implemented but had the potential to eliminate jobs for the more than 100,000 rag pickers.

The decentralizing of recycling has also been threatened by promotion from industry and governments of a rapid adoption of incineration technologies. These technologies are not suited to the conditions in India and only exacerbate the problem of waste. Ravi cites the example of the purchase of an incinerator at the cost of Rupees (R) 444 million (approximately US$10.5 million) with the help of a loan from the Dutch government in 1987. It was not designed for the low calorific value of Indian garbage and could not generate enough heat to burn it.

Something less than two percent of the waste stream is made up of medical waste, a small proportion of which is highly infectious and has the potential to infect the larger community as well as the rag pickers and the municipal workers. There have now been moves by the government to make segregation of infectious and noninfectious waste mandatory in hospitals. But so far hospitals can successfully implement very few alternative disposal models of medical waste. Industrial waste is also a major problem, particularly from the unfettered and often illegal growth of small-scale urban industry that contributes to the dumping of toxic wastes in municipal garbage bins.


Ravi's efforts highlight a strategic imperative for the reduction of waste in local neighborhoods: there must be active participation between households, rag pickers, and the municipal corporation. The model promoted by Ravi and his organization Srishti ("Creation") demonstrates components that decentralize waste management, turn resident consumers into conscious waste managers, and set up a system that acknowledges, responds to, and invests in the recycling skills and efficiency of rag pickers. His process also shows that such a decentralized system is greatly enhanced if the biodegradable portion of the waste is tackled at the site itself through simple methods such as composting, vermi-composting (composting catalyzed by worms) and bio-methanation.

Srishti acts as a catalyst, helping residents' associations install a door-to-door collection scheme using rag pickers. The organization trains the rag pickers to carry out vermi-composting of the biodegradable garbage after they take away recyclable material. They are paid a monthly fee of about Rupees 500 (US$12) from the contribution of each household. A representative of the community, often a housewife, coordinates between Srishti, colony (neighborhood) residents, and the rag pickers' collective. The representative spreads relevant messages about waste creation and associated habits and is on the community payroll for her services. To encourage composting, Srishti has also installed the first bioreactor in a slum in Delhi that treats the garbage of 600 households. The benefits of compost and gas that result are fed back to the community as a resource. The worker and supervisor of the bioreactor are residents of the area and draw salaries from the community for their work.

Ravi aims to induct the success of these community initiatives into municipal and government policy, so they will be replicated with civic and government efforts as authoritative urban guidelines. Srishti has directly implemented six community projects in Delhi and is assisting other individual and colony efforts in various parts of the city.

In 1996, as part of its agenda to appraise waste management technologies and their suitability to the Indian context, Srishti organized a large public discussion against the use of incinerators for medical waste disposal. Srishti argued that the technology had been labeled redundant by legislation in developed countries, and incinerators were proven to be health and environmental hazards. The government participated actively in the discussion, which resulted in the historic ban for the first time in the world on incineration of PVC (Polyvinyl chloride, a polymer commonly used in packaging materials, plumbing, etc.)

As a next step, Ravi organized a core group with the Delhi government, medical associations, and citizen's organizations to evolve safe hospital waste disposal techniques. Similar groups were formed in Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta, and Chennai (Madras). Srishti is preparing a manual for waste management in small hospitals, based on a model waste management system in a Delhi hospital: it includes a reporting system, a physical waste segregation system, an "accountability chain," and personnel training.

In order to stimulate change toward more responsible materials policy in industry, Ravi is carrying out research on the life cycle of plastics, so that the true cost of the product can be internalized by the producer and consumer. He is devising a chemicals usage inventory that will disclose the use of toxic chemicals in different industries and serve as a powerful advocacy tool for a more responsible industry.

Ravi spreads the impact of his work through an information-exchange network, Toxics Link, which responds to a broad information vacuum among citizen's organizations about toxicology related regulations and management choices. He also plans to grow Srishti into a national nonprofit center for waste management that examines issues of urban and industrial waste, draws national and international inputs, and helps formulate policy as well as community programs. Since 1994 Srishti has worked with citizen organizations in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh in North India, and Karnataka in South India to advocate waste reduction, rather than waste reuse and disposal.


Ravi was born in 1958 in Delhi. Always a brilliant student, he studied electronic and communication engineering and later did a graduate course in business management. After a successful stint in the corporate sector for two years, Ravi set up a small-scale industrial enterprise for seven years. The experience gave him an up-close view of the dynamics of running and managing a system, confidence in handling personnel, and a

strong financial base during the years of personal transition. "But it was not the direction I wanted onto go," he says. "I was not from a business family anyway and I was maximizing something I wasn't interested in."

An avid birdwatcher, Ravi had been a regular member of Srishti, then a nature club. In 1992, when the government declared that the Delhi Ridge (a band of parkland and wilderness that runs through the city of Delhi and a haven for bird-watchers) was to be handed over to Delhi development authorities, Ravi reacted by turning Srishti into an advocacy group. He lead a coalition of 17 organizations, the "Joint NGO Forum to Save the Delhi Ridge," that succeeded in having it declared a protected Reserve Forest.

Within the context of his affinity for nature, he began to feel that waste represented unsustainable resource use and was entirely an outcome of the way we as a society chose to live. His deep involvement with waste mismanagement in Delhi finally led him to an important decision. He closed his industrial unit and decided to work full time with Srishti.

An intrepid journalist and nature writer, he writes regularly for Delhi's leading newspapers and is considered to be an authoritative commentator on waste management. He continues to be an avid bird-watcher and has coordinated the Asian midwinter waterfowl count for the Asian Wetlands Bureau (AWB), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for three consecutive years.