Plastic warriors: a study on self-help group’s contribution to economic, social value creation and sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Tamil Nadu, India

M. Dominic Jayakumar (Department of Human Resource Management, Loyola Institute of Business Administration, Chennai, India)
Aiswarya Ramasundaram (Department of Human Resource Management, Loyola Institute of Business Administration, Chennai, India)
Arokiyadass Vanathayan (School of Commerce, XIM university, Bhubaneswar, Harirajpur, India)

Vilakshan - XIMB Journal of Management

ISSN: 0973-1954

Article publication date: 26 September 2023

592

Abstract

Purpose

Solid, liquid and e-waste pose serious health hazards, environmental pollution and contribute to climate change. To address these issues of solid waste management (SWM), amidst many policy decisions, the Government of India roped in several institutions, including self-help groups (SHGs), into the Swachh Bharat Movement (Clean India Mission). This study aims to illustrate the significant contributions of SHG’s in tackling SWM, particularly the plastic waste menace in India, while fostering socio-economic values and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Design/methodology/approach

Using a from-the-field approach, qualitative data were collected from 30 members of three SHGs to understand their significant contributions in mitigating plastic waste.

Findings

This research identifies three major themes: economic value creation, social value creation and SDGs via collection and reduction of plastic waste landfills. Furthermore, several related subthemes are identified.

Practical implications

This study offers pragmatic solutions to deal with plastic waste at personal, community, institutional and governmental levels. Moreover, it recommends engaging SHGs to promote sustainable waste management practices such as segregating wastes at source, regulating plastic bag usage, advocating behavioural change towards waste generation and protecting the environment.

Originality/value

The authors consider a proven case of SHG’s contribution to protect the environment and emphasize the need to involve more such groups in waste management practices.

Keywords

Citation

Jayakumar, M.D., Ramasundaram, A. and Vanathayan, A. (2023), "Plastic warriors: a study on self-help group’s contribution to economic, social value creation and sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Tamil Nadu, India", Vilakshan - XIMB Journal of Management, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/XJM-01-2023-0016

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, M. Dominic Jayakumar, Aiswarya Ramasundaram and Arokiyadass Vanathayan.

License

Published in Vilakshan - XIMB Journal of Management. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence maybe seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


1. Introduction

In the wake of increasing global waste production and environmental degradation, self-help groups (SHGs) in India have emerged as significant players in solid waste management (SWM), contributing to economic empowerment, social value creation and sustainable development goals (SDGs) (Chen et al., 2020; Robert et al., 2021). These grassroots organisations have achieved remarkable success in promoting community participation, raising environmental awareness and endorsing responsibility for cleanliness (Henry et al., 2006; Sharma et al., 2018). Additionally, SHGs have implemented sustainable waste reduction practices like composting, recycling and reusing waste materials to reduce the environmental impact of waste (Pattnaik and Reddy, 2010; Mishra et al., 2020). They also encourage income-generating activities by using recycled materials and other waste products (Bali Swain and Wallentin, 2012).

In India, SHGs have used the transformative potential of their core principles, such as the creditworthiness of the poor, transparency and accountability in financial transactions, prompt loan repayments reinforced by group pressure and collective problem-solving through democratic decision-making systems (Agnihotri and Malipatil, 2016).

In the global waste crisis, plastic waste presents a formidable challenge with implications for human health, marine ecosystems and the climate change (Niti Aayog, 2022). Generating 62 million tons of waste annually including 5.6 million tons of plastics (Chen et al., 2020), India endures the major brunt of this crisis. India, a fast-growing economy aided by its huge population, produces over 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, 40% of which remains uncollected (Central Pollution Control Board, 2019). Specifically, the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, despite contributing significantly to the nation’s GDP, faces a substantial plastic waste issue, generating 431,472 metric tons of such waste, second only to Maharashtra (MOSPI, 2022).

Government of India’s (GoI) proactive measures like Solid Waste Management Rules (2016), Plastic Waste Management Rules (2016), banning single-use plastic and the Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines are remarkable to mitigate this serious environmental problem. Furthermore, the GoI initiated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014 and roped in community-based movements like non-governmental organisation (NGO) and SHGs (Kandpal and Saizen, 2022) to tackle SWM.

In the waste management ecosystem, the crucial role of businesses – the significant waste generators, is essential to reduce waste by following the government’s legislation. Local governance bodies contribute substantially to waste management through legislation, policymaking and public–private partnerships (Troschinetz and Mihelcic, 2009). They also support NGOs and SHGs, functioning as intermediaries, who foster waste segregation, collection and recycling.

SHGs in waste management have gained attention, particularly in the developing world (Shrestha et al., 2019; Rahman et al., 2019). SHGs have increased waste collection and recycling in Vietnam and Ghana and created employment while reducing landfill waste in Brazil (Ngoc and Schnitzer, 2009; Miezah et al., 2015). In India, SHGs played a critical role in the “Clean Kerala” mission (Joseph, 2019) and positively impacted waste segregation (Gupta and Balamurugan, 2021).

Need and relevance for the study: The necessity of the research is multifaceted. Firstly, the case study showcases a model in SHGs towards environmental protection and offers invaluable insights for policy decisions. Secondly, this study illuminates the pivotal role of SHGs in fostering skill enhancement and socio-economic empowerment within the broader landscape of women empowerment and their substantial contribution to the SDGs, especially contributing to SDG 11: sustainable cities and communities. Moreover, the study demands attitudinal shifts and perspective changes of every citizen regarding waste generation, waste reduction and plastic waste management.

Therefore, this study aims to illustrate the significant contributions of SHGs in addressing the plastic waste issue and creating socio-economic value and the contributions for SDGs. The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: Section 2 presents the review of the literature. Section 3 presents the qualitative research methodology adopted in the study and the case background. In section 4, results and discussions are given. Finally, Section 5 presents the conclusion, limitations and practical implications of this research.

2. Review of literature

To achieve the objectives of this research, literature was systematically reviewed from databases including Scopus, EBSCO and Google Scholar. The review of literature has been structured thematically encompassing the historical development of SHGs, their influence on socio-economic growth and women’s empowerment, alignment with SDGs and the value creation through SHGs.

2.1 Historical development of self-help groups

Dasgupta (2005) highlights the genesis of SHGs in India, linking them to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development initiatives from the mid-1980s. This initiative was further galvanised by the Reserve Bank of India’s effort to synergize SHGs with banking infrastructures. This nexus precipitated a socio-economic metamorphosis, particularly uplifting marginalised women (Sinha and Navin, 2021). Furthermore, policies like the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, now recognised as the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), were pivotal in encouraging self-employment and alleviating poverty.

2.2 Self-help groups’ influence on socio-economic growth and women empowerment

Over the years, a consensus has emerged among scholars on SHGs’ pivotal role in enhancing socio-economic empowerment, specifically amongst marginalised women, via structured waste management systems (Wilson et al., 2006; Davidson and Sanyal, 2017; Gupta and Rathore, 2021). SHGs have created income-generation avenues, particularly for marginalised women and waste pickers (Gutberlet and Garenzo, 2020). These groups have become instruments of socio-economic progression, empowering women to traverse societal challenges (Rama Lakshmi, 2018). Furthermore, there is empirical evidence suggesting SHGs’ efficacy in mitigating municipal waste, curbing environmental degradation and fostering employment through recycling initiatives (Singh and Tripathi, 2021). Notably, SHGs have spearheaded initiatives promoting environmental awareness, mindfulness and social inclusivity (Patel et al., 2023).

While international studies corroborate the economic and social dividends reaped by SHG members (Karim and Nigar, 2016; Wahab et al., 2018; Shrestha et al., 2019), a group of researchers challenge these narratives, arguing the lack of compelling evidence supporting SHGs’ tangible upliftment of women’s socio-economic conditions (Desai and Joshi, 2013; Mader, 2015). Contrarily, Kandpal and Saizen (2022) advocate that SHG engagement fosters positive attitudes towards SWM and augments their social capital.

2.3 Self-help groups: catalysts for social value creation

Several studies highlight the SHGs’ role in fostering holistic social value creation (Fernandes, 2006), cultivating community welfare, enhancing social integration and advancing societal progress (Sanyal, 2009). Particularly, women-centric SHGs have been pivotal in accentuating their societal standing and nurturing decision-making aptitude (Sanyal, 2009).

2.4 Self-help groups in the context of sustainable development goals

SHGs have been increasingly recognised for their pivotal role in advancing the SDGs on a global scale. In Kenya, for instance, SHGs have effectively promoted financial inclusivity, aligning their objectives with SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) (Green et al., 2016). In a parallel endeavour, South African SHGs have significantly contributed to HIV prevention efforts, thereby resonating with SDG 3 (good health and well-being) (Kriel et al., 2014). In Nepal, SHGs have improved the Women’s socio-economic status and contributed to achieving SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) (Manandhar et al., 2018). Within the Indian context, SHGs have exhibited commendable progress towards achieving multiple SDGs. Notably, their initiatives encompass economic empowerment, enhancing health care accessibility, promoting gender equality and undertaking climate action measures, aligning with SDGs 1, 3, 5 and 13, respectively (Saikia et al., 2016; Kumar and Singh, 2020).

2.5 Theoretical lenses for the study

Building on the reviews, this study draws insights from Light’s (2006) vantage on social entrepreneurship and the “people-centred” paradigm posited by Bryant and White (1982), underscoring the centrality of individual empowerment. Delving deeper, participation is scrutinised through the “Social Movement Perspective” and the “Institutional Perspective”, offering nuanced insights into societal participation. Yet, researchers highlight the potential pitfalls of these approaches and advocate a more discerning understanding of empowerment (Cleaver, 1999; Williams, 2004).

This literature review sets the stage for the exploration of SHGs’ transformative role in Tamil Nadu.

3. Methodology

The case study (Yin, 2018) was inspired by the Indian Prime Minister’s Maan Ki Baat programme, which appeared in The Hindu newspaper (The Hindu, 13 August 2021). Further discussions with the Assistant Project Officers of Tamil Nadu Corporation for the Development of Women (TNCDW) in Dindigul District and in Chennai, laid the foundation for this qualitative case study. A purposive sampling method was used to obtain more details. Adhering to the case study protocol and ethical practices, the researchers briefed the 30 respondents (who have had more than ten years of membership in SHGs) on the purpose of the study and sought permission to record and photograph. Using a semi-structured questionnaire (Appendix), three group discussions followed by a separate interview with the group leader, and a few officials of the TNCDW in Dindigul were conducted. The multi-source qualitative data gathered through face-to-face interviews, telephonic conversations and exchange of emails was cross-checked and verified for validity. The conversations were transcribed, triangulated and checked with an expert to remove bias and to ensure objectivity. Further secondary data was collected from the Scopus, EBSCO and Government records. The qualitative data was analysed using Gioia’s methodology (Gioia et al., 2013).

3.1 Case background

Tamil Nadu has been a trailblazer in SHGs’ performance since its beginning in 1989. Particularly, the flagship programme of “Mahalir Thittam” (women’s project) of TNCDW strives to achieve many objectives, such as skill development, capacity building, leadership qualities and women’s economic independence. Table 1 enumerates the number of SHGs in India, Tamil Nadu and Dindigul District. The following section provides the case in detail.

Plastic warriors: Neelam, a village panchayat in Dindigul, has more than 5,000 families and a population of more than 15,000. While the educated are in salaried jobs, and others depend on agricultural activities and other informal sectors for employment. In 2010, a plastic shredding unit was set up to create livelihood opportunities for three SHG women in Neelam village. Officials of Mahalir Thittam/Tamil Nadu State Rural Livelihood Mission (TNRLM) provided grants, guidance and training for them.

Due to their remarkable services and the pivotal leadership of the group, the Neelam group was honoured with the Nirmal Puraskar Award, which translates to “clean village”, from the GoI, as well as the “Manimegalai Viruthu” from the Tamil Nadu State Government. This latter award recognised their achievement of 100% sanitation, an entirely open defecation-free environment and effective SWM. Consequently, this particular SHG became the primary focus of our research.

To know more about their contributions, we collected qualitative data by administering a semi-structured questionnaire (Appendix), only three sample questions enlisted below:

RQ1.

Could you explain the economic benefit from your daily operation?

RQ2.

What are the social and environmental benefits of your operations?

RQ3.

Are you aware of sustainable development goals (SDGs)? Does your work contribute to achieving SDGs?

4. Results and discussion

Adopting Gioia’s methodology (Gioia et al., 2013), the qualitative data was analysed. The first-order responses were analysed based on the respondents’ terms, codes and themes. With repeated interviews, the researchers identified clusters of recurring themes based on similarities and differences. Aggregate dimensions were drawn from first-order concepts and second-order themes. These three-stage processes formed the basis for the “data structure” from which three distinct themes, namely:

  1. economic value creation;

  2. social value creations; and

  3. SDGs.

Table 2 below presents the respondents’ themes/codes, dimensions and representative quotes:

4.1 Economic value creation

The significance of SHG’s economic value creation is understood in the backdrop of growing challenges of rural unemployment, slow economic growth and decreasing female labour force participation in India. Moreover, the extension of two Government schemes, namely, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, which provides 100-day work for 50 million households annually, and the seventh extension of Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY), which provides 5 kg of free food grains per month to over 80 crore beneficiaries substantiate the gravity of rural unemployment and food insecurity. Nonetheless, this SHG provides them daily jobs for 20 days per month, a daily income of Rs 300, transforming their lives. Furthermore, these SHGs have generated wealth worth of Rs 30 laksh from the waste.

4.2 Social value creation

Social value creation is the primary characteristic of social entrepreneurs’ activities (Zahra et al., 2009). Social value is something of value for society (Di Domenico, 2010), difficult to quantify but captured by non-financial indices such as output, impact and changes. Since 2010, these SHGs have removed 102 tons of plastics, reduced landfills, increased water table levels and made the land fertile in Neelam village. Besides laying of 274 km of road, it promote a cleaner environment while generating livelihood opportunities. These are concrete examples of social value creation of SHGs.

4.3 Contribution towards achieving SDGs

Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Bruntland, 1987 report). The UN’s SDGs strive to “leave behind no one” and achieve the sustainability of people, the planet and prosperity by 2030. Unfortunately, pandemic induced economic slowdown, the energy crisis and the economic recession triggered by the Ukraine–Russia war may delay the progress. Nonetheless, Westerbos (2019) enlisted different SDGs that address the plastic waste menace, though not explicitly: SDG 1: no poverty; SDG 2: zero hunger; SDG 3: good health and well-being; SDG 4: quality education; SDG 5: gender equality; SDG 8: decent work and economic growth; SDG 13: climate action; and SDG 15: life on earth. Moreover, these SHGs have put into practice some elements of the 9R framework of circular economy: 0: refuse, 1: rethink, 2: reduce, 3: reuse, 4: repair, 5: refurbish, 6: remanufacture, 7: repurpose, 8: recycle and 9: recover (Kirchherr et al., 2017).

From the above, it is understood that SHGs significantly contribute economic, social value creation and towards achieving different SDGs. These results lead to the conclusion section.

5. Conclusion

This paper illustrates the transformational power of women’s SHGs in tackling plastic waste. It highlights their contribution thematically to economic value creation, social value creation and to the SDGs. While displaying a working model to mitigate plastic waste crisis, this case nudges us to change our behaviour and attitudes regarding waste generation and invites us to protect our common home. When 1.5 billion Indians say no to plastics and resume sustainable green practices such as shopping with cloth bags or carrying water bottles, India can become cleaner and consequently address climate change. When people and the business organisations own responsibility to reduce waste and segregate waste at source, India will achieve the “Clean India Mission” where every Indian may exercise his right to live a healthy life.

5.1 Future scope and limitations

The findings of a single case study, amidst many SHGs that deal with SWM and plastic waste, cannot be generalised. Furthermore, the significant findings of this qualitative study cannot be compared with other SHGs, which engage in diverse entrepreneurial activities from necessities to luxuries of life (Nayak, 2015). Hence, future researchers can use multiple case study methods to benchmark the best practices using advanced technologies in tackling SWM. Furthermore, researchers can conduct an anthropological study on why, in India, only a particular caste group is forced moon landing to be sweepers/scavengers and why manual scavenging is practiced even in this age of artificial intelligence, drones and robotics?

5.2 Practical implications

This research paper focuses on the significant contributions of SHGs in tackling the plastic waste problem in India while also adding socio-economic value and help in the journey towards achieving the SDGs. Particularly, this research highlights the role of SHGs in effectively managing plastic waste within the community, which can play a vital role in waste management through organised efforts. By promoting and supporting community-based waste management initiatives involving SHGs, local governments and NGOs can establish and manage waste collection and recycling programs within the community. This research also underscores the importance of reducing plastic waste generation by promoting responsible consumption and production practices by raising awareness among general citizens, businesses and policymakers on the environmental impacts of plastic waste. This study emphasises on the need for policy decisions by governments to encourage businesses to adopt sustainable packaging practices, reduce single-use plastics and promote the use of eco-friendly alternatives. More importantly, this research highlights the economic and social empowerment of women achieved through SHGs and suggests that promoting women’s participation in such initiatives can contribute not only to their empowerment but also to socio-economic advancement. For this purpose, this research proposes the need to include more supporting and funding SHGs, especially those involving women, to engage in waste management and related income-generating activities. Furthermore, the research highlights the linkages between SHGs’ activities and several SDGs, including no poverty (SDG-1), gender equality (SDG-5), decent work (SDG-8) and climate action (SDG-13). As waste management can be integrated into broader development agendas, the practical implications involve incorporating waste management initiatives into SDG-focused projects and programs to address multiple goals and targets of sustainable development. This research also identified the need for attitudinal shifts and perspective changes among citizens regarding waste generation and management, which can be attempted through effective educational campaigns targeting schools, communities and the public to raise awareness about plastic pollution, waste reduction, recycling and highlighting the importance of individual actions in preserving the environment. Furthermore, this research suggests businesses to collaborate with local SHGs and NGOs to develop effective waste management strategies and contribute to the well-being of local communities. Future replication and scaling up of successful models to other communities and regions shall be achieved through knowledge-sharing platforms and capacity-building workshops. Finally, this research alludes to the circular economy concept of 9R for businesses to reduce waste generation, increase resource efficiency and encourage more sustainable production and consumption patterns. Through these valuable insights into the role of SHGs and practical implications outlined above, this research offers a pathway for various stakeholders to act at different levels i.e. at individual, community, institutional and governmental levels to manage plastic waste and empower communities to contribute towards a more sustainable future effectively and efficiently.

SHGs in India and in Tamil Nadu

S. no. Group of states in NRLM Total no. of SHGs No. of women in SHGs
1 16 Central states 7,396,598 81,026,907
2 5 Northwest states 230,719 2,059,245
3 7 Northeast states 113,154 1,054,331
4 Territories 9,793 119,230
  Total 7,750,264 84,259,713
Tamil Nadu
  Tamil Nadu 300,386 3,566,057
  Dindigul district 8,752 96,118

Source: (NRLM.gov.in) as on Sept 2022

Respondent’s themes and dimensions

Representative quotes 2nd order themes Dimension
“Eight members work and shred 150 kg of plastic daily Others collect plastic waste, segregate and clean them”
“We earn Rs 300/ per day and get job 20 days in a month We earned so far Rs 30 lakh rupees”
“We buy the plastic scraps for Rs 5 per kg. We sell the plastic pellets at Rs 30 per kg”
  • Daily job

  • Regular income, Employment opportunities

  • Better wages

  • Different sources of income

Economic value creation
“102 tons of plastic has been collected, shredded and sold to lay 274 km roads”
“25 tons of plastic waste so far collected”
“Six tons of plastic waste collected from door to door”
  • Cleaner and pollution free environment

  • Less mosquito breeding

  • Land free of plastic waste

  • Increased water table

Social value creation
“We educate our children them”
“We are coming out the poverty trap and loan sharks”
“We save some amount. Able to manage our household expenses. Eat well”
“We are happy we have regenerated our lands, reduced landfills”
  • Quality education – SDG 4

  • No poverty – SDG 1

  • Good health and well-being – SDG 3

  • Decent work – SDG 8

  • Sustainable cities and communities – SDG 11

  • Cleaner environment

  • Climate action – SDG-3

  • Life on land SDG 15

Sustainable development goals

Source: Created by authors

Appendix. Semi-structured questionnaire

RQ1: Could you explain the economic benefit from your daily operation?

RQ2: What are the social, environmental benefits your operations?

RQ3: Are you aware of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Does your work contribute to achieving SDGs?

RQ4: Could you share operational challenges faced over the years?

RQ5: Could you share about the key role of the leadership in the success of your business?

RQ6: How do you feel engaged in garbage collection which is usually associated with the lower caste people in India?

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Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful for the feedback and suggestions received from reviewers, professors and friends. The authors express gratitude to the members of SHGs who provided valuable information.

Funding: The authors have not received any funding for the research.

Declaration of conflict of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest in this study.

Corresponding author

M. Dominic Jayakumar can be contacted at: dominic.jayakumar@liba.edu

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