Empowerment and Disposable Futures: Politics of Clean Kerala Business

Kalyani felt reluctant to leave her bed and go to the kitchen so early in the morning. Thoughts of the last working days flashed through her mind. It had been months since her group was able to work properly. But as a routine, they had to sign the register in the local administration. Thinking of the long working days ahead which gave her no choice but to cook, do household activities and also perform her duty of collecting society’s waste, she woke up and went to the kitchen. With a sigh, she thought of the disgusting job she did for the society and yet how she bore the brunt of the society’s neglect. But the pittance it provided was crucial for the family to survive with a drunkard of a husband. Children’s education, household expenditures and everything else had to be paid for with this pittance. The group she worked in was called the “Clean Kerala Business” and was considered different for its employment potential around the year, providing financial stability through the microcredit system. The Clean Kerala Business is basically a social service oriented activity supported by the local government, for door to door collection of solid wastes from the urban centres of Kerala. The workers were provided with loans to purchase the auto-rickshaw for transporting the collected waste to the compost plant. Gloves and other tools were provided by the local body for the first time and later on to be bought by the women themselves.

Areas have been defined for each unit comprising of women ranging from numbers 10-50, to collect the household waste. An amount of Rs.50 was paid by the households for their service, the collected amount being further divided into the amount for the installment loan repayment, vehicle repair, purchase of tools,and individual remuneration for the services. The amount that was spent for fixing the wear and tear of the vehicle was high apart from the loan to be repaid. Since the amount collected and obtained as remuneration for their service was not sufficient enough to survive, most women in Kalyani’s group took up other activities like domestic works in the nearby houses. Microsavings and microcredit systems were smoothly carried out in the weekly meetings of the unit. Kalyani remembered that when they got into action for the first time in uniform, the curiosity of the people was interesting while the stench of the waste was disgusting. Often she fell sick, vomiting and not having proper food after work. Not long after their work began, a protest movement erupted near the compost plant, against the local body for uncontrolled dumping of waste. Several women’s collectives which constituted the Clean Kerala Business, including Kalyani’s, were targeted and blamed for increasing the amount of waste in the trenching ground and changing the wasting habits of city dwellers.

“When it is the job of local governmental bodies to ensure waste treatment why should we be blamed for increasing waste and be deprived of our job? Is it not people’s consumption that increases the amount of waste? Even after doing a service to the society why are we blamed as a menace for society by agitators and the local bodies alike? Our service to the society is often forgotten and we end up losing our jobs. How do we repay the loans we took for the vehicle? Why are these things happening to women like us?”

The questions raised by Kalyani are worth asking. Who are to be blamed for the biggest urban problem of solid waste generation, the local administrations inability to handle the issue, technological failures, agitators’ plight and the scuttled women’s empowerment project? To answer these questions would require an examination of waste not as a mere a technical issue but as a socio-political issue and the politics of microfinance under which principle the clean Kerala business works.

Waste as a socio-political issue

The materiality of solid wastes generated in urban centres ensured that the problem was often reduced to being a technical issue to be handled by existing technologies. Recently, it has been observed across the world that technology is not the sole factor required to handle the issue. Underlying the problem of urban waste management are many social and political issues. Environmental justice advocates argue that waste dumping usually occurs in places where the poor and marginalised sections of the society live, and that it has racist elements in western countries. It is a major political issue because of the underlying class character that these activities entail. The ideological underpinnings to these activities often expose the instability of capitalism and its measures/ways to cope with these issues.

Though waste is not a new phenomenon to humanity, industrial revolution and the subsequent market development have been blamed for the mass generation of waste across the world. Waste has even acquired an international character due to the transport of hazardous and non hazardous waste across national boundaries. Though Third World nations were not much concerned about these issues due to poverty and underdevelopment during the early post colonial years, liberalization and globalization changed the whole urban scenario of the Third World. Third World cities today generate huge amounts of waste, similar to that of the developed countries. Changing characteristics of waste after the discovery of plastic and synthetic products and the construction of consumerism and disposable culture by the market’s ‘planned obsolescence’, are major factors for this. Waste generated at such a massive scale then falls under the obligatory list of the urban local bodies for removal and treatment. Organized collection and mechanized treatment are the best sought out practices today by the local bodies since, as mentioned earlier, waste is often considered a mere technical issue. The state of Kerala, though is well known for its social parameters which equals that of Scandinavian countries and for the Kerala model of development, it exhibits a high ‘morbidity rate’, where the cleanliness drive of most families extend till their own gates and not beyond. Deteriorating urban aesthetics and the outbreak of frequent epidemics are major concerns in the state today. Transportation of the collected waste to dumping grounds in the outskirts of the city (often falling under some panchayat) where poor people live invites protest against the local administration and its waste management policy. Curtailment of the basic right to live in a clean environment due to accumulated waste and its contaminating potential brings in the social and political dimension to the urban issue called solid waste. The solutions sought out often include mechanization of treatment which attracts further disagreement due to frequent failures of technology and the stench.

Sculptor Kanayi Kunjiraman expresses solidarity with the agitation against the garbage plant in Vilapilsala (Image Credits: The Hindu)

Though technological failures and its social impacts are major concerns in itself, the scope of this article is to examine the utilization of women in waste collection for an efficient waste management policy. One requirement of waste treatment technologies like composting which is rampant in Kerala is the ordering of the society in entailing a particular waste handling habit. That is, a habit that ensures the source segregation of waste into biodegradable and recyclable. Lack of this initiative may lead to the failure of technology at the initial stage itself. Thus, in a state like Kerala,where people care least about the waste they generate, the requirement of a labour force for source segregation and collection of the urban solid waste is inevitable. Women entrepreneurs under Kudumbashree constituted a major informal economy at this point in Kerala. Kudumbashree is a state created civil society organization that envisions poverty alleviation and women empowerment in Kerala. Central to the Kudumbashree initiative is the participation of women in large numbers in developmental activities. Their economic needs are met through microenterprises and microcredit.The involvement of Kudumbashree women in solid waste collection and transportation in the urban centres of Kerala was put forward as a bureaucratic suggestion.Thus Channelling under the anti poverty and women empowerment programme, Clean Kerala business units became a reality in the state. Understanding Clean Kerala Business working under the principle of microfinance may then explain why women were considered cheap labour for solid waste collection and how the ‘waste makers’ and their dominant ideology cope with the problem of solid waste.

Clean Kerala Business Units as a microfinance institution

It is argued that microfinance is a neoliberal institutional arrangement that vectors all economic activities and capital accumulation through private individual initiative, avoiding conscious planning or guidance of market mechanism.The participatory approaches in the local governance and flexible work practices are at the core of such institutional arrangements, where ‘poor’ are considered the ‘frontier market’ for new horizons of capital accumulation. Therefore microfinance in its crude form becomes a ‘poverty capital’, where development capital and the finance capital merge and collaborate to open up new territories of investment. These territories of investment include ‘formerly neglected zones’ like the ‘other half’, i.e. women subjugated under the patriarchal social milieu and their labour.It is often observed that loans to women are better repaid as compared to men--the factors that have been translated into women empowerment project under neoliberalism. The necessity of women’s informal work can be attributed to maintaining the global capitalist system as it easily absorbs the cost of adjustments, provides cheap labour subcontracting services to formal sector and creates new markets and subsidizes the low wages paid in the formal sector. The neoliberal structural adjustment programmes perpetuate poverty in the global south, while at the same time trying to capture the social and political weaknesses in the society for capital accumulation. It is precisely because of this fact that Montes Ireland enquired, whether a neoliberal free market tool should be used to combat the predatory free market policies of neoliberalism. In all these activities what is not to be forgotten is the ‘unpaid labour of love’ that women have to render, and because of which the development projects only increase the plight of the already oppressed due to their long hours of labour.

Also women often are engaged in activities that carry with it the patriarchal legacy. For example women and garbage have a historical linkage because of their predetermined gender roles in the society. Garbage produced in households becomes the natural responsibility of women. Clean Kerala Business which trades under this phenomena, advocate individuated responsibility of development and empowerment while servicing the community as a whole by waste removal. Functionally it is supported by the local government in the implementation of the programmes and banks in lending loans for the procurement of vehicles and other requirements. Women are trained to collect and transport waste. The source segregated waste is collected to be sold as recyclables and the rest to be transported to the compost plant. Often women complain that male drivers have to be recruited and payment is taken from their monthly remuneration for the service. Occurrences of bribing by the contingent labourers while transferring waste to the municipal vehicle, secondary treatment by administration as compared to contingent labourer add to the woes of women informal workers. Amidst all this, the wrath of the uproar from garbage hotspots of Kerala fall on these women, because their informal labour allows capitalists and the state to bypass their huge responsibility of waste and expensive and politically threatening labour relations that exist in the formal economy. The argument here is that women are identified as the cheap labour force for handling solid waste owing to their existing social status and gender roles but often through embracing the rhetoric of women empowerment, disguised under which are labour casualization and capitalist interests.


The very class character of the existing waste management strategy and the social movements exposes the ineffectiveness of the mechanization of waste treatment and the social and political issues surrounding it. In the absence of a proper waste management strategy in the state, the Clean Kerala business initiative is a blessing in disguise to contain the massive urban unrest due to accumulated waste. In an effort to contain the urban unrest that may arise due to consumerist capitalism, the feminist rhetoric of empowerment and patriarchal social conditions are used, thereby forming an unholy alliance between capitalism and patriarchy. The end result is the utilization and the marketization of women’s labour as an available cheap labour force, without a solution to the ever increasing solid wastes.Also precisely because of these factors, programmes like Clean Kerala Business’s are unstable ending up in women’s joblessness as observed from the ‘sevanasree’ initiative of Thrissur Municipal Corporation.