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The Cause Behind the Craft
Creates livelihood opportunities for women transitioning out of waste-picking
Where it began
– Established in 2013
– An initiative of IL&FS Nalanda Foundation
-To provide alternative livelihood for women waste-pickers
Making Lives Better
– 120 women trained into skilled artisans
– 35 women given employment in the East Ghazipur center
– Up-skilled 20 women in the craft of embroidery & stitching
Environmental Impact
– 7,000 kilograms of paper recycled
– Approx. 120 trees saved by using recycled paper.
– 15 tons of discarded flowers re-used
Gulmeher: New Livelihoods for Ragpickers
in East Delhi has one of the oldest functional landfills in the city. Hundreds of families live near the dumpsite and earn an income through waste-picking. When we set up a 12 MW waste to energy power plant here, we started the Gulmeher livelihood initiative to help members of this community find alternate livelihoods.
34 women have been trained to make high quality handicrafts, paper bags and chemical-free from discarded flowers of the Ghazipur wholesale flower market. An embroidery unit and a paper recycling unit that produces paper on commercial order have also been set up with women from the locality.
Gulmeher— literally meaning ‘the blessings of flowers’ — has transformed the lives of these women by giving them a safe space to work, and a new identity as artisans and stakeholders of the Gulmeher Producer Company.
The communities living around the dump are largely migrants from West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who eke out a living from the landfill. The men scour the mounds of garbage for any useful waste they can find, while the women segregate and prepare it to be sold to scrap dealers.
As you can imagine, scavenging on Ghazipur’s waste mountain—prone to spontaneous fires and frequent collapses—is a dangerous task with returns.
“Rain or shine, we would spend all day on this dump, even eating our lunch surrounded by its stench and squalor,” Salma recalls.
Today, Salma and thirty other women like her—who’ve known no the one on the landfill—are employees and shareholders in the Gulmeher Green Producer Company. They make diaries, calendars, and photo frames with recycled paper and adorn them with delicately-pressed dried flowers and leaves.
This is laborious work, requiring long hours and fine movements.
The flower market of Ghazipur lacks a cold storage facility, so heaps of flowers that remain unsold in the way to the garbage every day.
At dawn, the women of Gulmeher make their way to this market to collect the flowers which are dried in the sun. Then, the petals and leaves are painstakingly separated, ready to be turned into art.
In 2013, former infrastructure and financial services major IL&FS built a waste-to-energy plant to divert waste away from the Ghazipur landfill—a move that threatened to leave hundreds of waste-pickers out of jobs.
As a way to provide alternative livelihoods to the affected communities, the company, through its CSR wing, Nalanda Foundation, began implementing a slew of initiatives in the area, one of which was Gulmeher.
began operating as a social enterprise with a group of 30 women, mostly waste-pickers like Salma, from the Ghazipur slum. Its aim was to leverage the women’s expertise in waste collection and segregation, and give them professional training in skills that would help them move out of waste-picking and into safer, more hygienic jobs.
Women were Gulmeher’s main focus because, while the men found alternate employment as rickshaw operators and store hands, it was important to create employment for the women in the vicinity of the slum so they could be close to their homes.
Early efforts to engage the women with literacy and financial management classes proved unsuccessful, says Anurag Kashyap, mentor at Gulmeher.
So it was decided to build on the women already had—embroidery and tailoring, for instance, and create eco-friendly, zero-waste products from raw material that was available in abundance around them.
Under the expert guidance of a professional designer, the women how to painstakingly cut and arrange flower petals and leaves into intricate patterns inspired by nature and wildlife.
“For the first few months, the women had a hard time sitting even for a few hours because they were accustomed to being on the move all day—picking and sorting waste,” Kashyap remembers.
They’ve come a long way since—making rudimentary greeting cards and gift boxes and intricate, portraits of Hollywood starlets.
As a full-time employee of Gulmeher Green Producer Company, the work is stable, and she receives a regular income which is credited to her bank account. She’s saved enough money over the last five years to buy a plot of land and invest in gold ornaments for her daughter.
Others, says Kashyap, have used their savings to build independent toilets and upgrade from tarpaulin shelters to brick and mortar dwellings.
“You won’t understand until you come here and see for yourself,” Salma urges me more than once, as we talk to visit her to fully comprehend the change it has brought to her life.
While there have been marked economic benefits from Gulmeher’s initiatives, the social outcomes have been satisfying, Kashyap says. Because she hours, Salma has been able to in an open university and spend a few hours every day, studying for her upcoming exams.
“We also fall ill far less,” she and Naseema say, which means a considerable saving on medical bills.
It’s not all roses at Gulmeher, however.
With the collapse of IL&FS last year, the NGO lost its primary source of funding. Kashyap, former Associate Director of IL&FS’ Nalanda Foundation, found himself faced with the decision of shutting down Gulmeher. This refused to dampen the artisans’ spirits. that there was no more external support, they rallied to protect the venture and keep it running.
“That really encouraged us to find a way to stay afloat and become financially independent by expanding our product range and tapping new markets,” says Kashyap. He now funds Gulmeher personally and with the help of donations and grants.
This hasn’t been easy because most of Gulmeher’s products see seasonal demand and compete with low-priced, mass-produced items. In the last year, the women have forayed into new areas, and their skills evolve to keep up with his vision. They have started taking bulk orders products and make corporate gifts from new categories of waste—recycling old newspaper and discarded plastics into stationery and stitching cloth bags.
So far, the women have recycled 7,000 kilograms of paper and kept 15 tonnes of discarded flowers out of the landfill. products carry stories of transformation, but they’re beginning to command a market based on their professional craftsmanship, not just because they tug at the heartstrings.
We’re sitting atop a virtually inexhaustible resource, the gold mine of the future—garbage. So, once we carve out a niche for ourselves, it’s just a matter of scaling up and replicating this model to empower many more waste-pickers across the country with sustainable alternative livelihoods so that they can lead a life of dignity,” Kashyap says.
  ka   mein, din the, kuch khaas, kuch banate hai (There is a huge difference in my life, earlier, I used to spend my entire day at the garbage dump in hope that I will dig out something useful from the waste mountain, now, I the waste and create treasure).
Salma came to New Delhi in search of livelihood and ended up landing at the capital’s largest garbage dump many years ago. Sharing her garbage dump journey, Salma added,
I always dreamt of going to school, making friends and achieving something in my life. But things didn’t go as planned, after my father’s death, I had to come to Delhi in search of livelihood. And by the time I what I am doing, I had already made searching waste from Ghazipur my daily ritual. Half of my life just got wasted in dealing with garbage and garbage alone.
Salma’s fate changed in 2013 after the intervention of Gulmeher, today she is no longer labelled as a waste picker, instead, she is called as an ‘Artist’ who is making beautiful eco-friendly, zero-waste products. She has also recently made a poster of the iconic Marilyn Monroe, using waste rose petals.  She adds,
I am so glad to be a part of something different. Earlier my routine included waking up and straight away going to the garbage dump. But, now I am making pretty looking products and the irony is that I am still working with waste. From dealing with cardboards to wet waste such as discarded flowers, vegetable waste and paper waste, I deal with it all, only this time I am turning them into creative products.

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