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“Until recently, I had thought of garbage as waste,” says this spry, energetic 9-year-old. “Today, when we compost some of it into valuable fertilizer and earn an income from selling segregated waste in the kabadi (recyclers) market, I have come to see it as a resource!” Meet Gayatri, one of the youngest waste warriors of village Lalpur (Mohanlalganj Block in Lucknow District). Treasurer of the local Solid Liquid Resource Management (SLRM) committee, she, along with other co-members, goes door-to-door and collects segregated waste from every household. The wet waste is composted or fed to animals, while the SLRM committee sells the dry recyclable waste for a small profit.

It’s a far cry from how this village used to be till 2016. “Earlier there was no system for garbage disposal; people literally just threw it anywhere outside their homes,” she says. “We had to cover our noses while walking though these narrow lanes!” With the support of HSBC Water Programme, WaterAid India and its partner the solutions came along. The SLRM committee, now registered as a Self Help Group, not only collects waste but also generates awareness about sanitation and hygiene.

The SHG has received Rs 15,000 from the government as an incentive. “With this capital, we’re now buying recyclable waste from neighboring villages,” she says. Every morning, after their waste collection round, Gayatri goes with other members to neighboring villages to source this. “Our plan is to collect this, segregate it properly into plastics, glass, paper, cardboard and more, and sell it in Lucknow because we will get a better price there,” she says.

This waste warrior’s zeal seems even more extraordinary in light of her background. The daughter of daily wage agricultural labourers, Gayatri too was forced to drop her plans of going to college after passing class twelve when her mother became sick. “My father and I would each earn about Rs 100 a day,” she says. “I also had to look after the house and my mother.”

Two years ago, she managed to get a job at Rs 3000 with the SLRM committee. Today, her salary has gone up to Rs 6000 a month. “At some point, I would like to go to college to study further,” she says. “Till then, I’m content that my work has made the village a cleaner, better place – and because of my income, my mother doesn’t need to work anymore!”