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Dumped And Doomed: Reclaiming Livelihoods Of The Waste Pickers

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By Jayanthi A. Pushkaran:

Countless swarms of flies buzz around on top of a trash mountain, a bunch of dogs lay half awake and crows hover above, while Salman (11 yrs) begins his day picking up waste from Sector 18 Rohini, Delhi. Everyday at 5 am, he trudges up through this heap to search plastic, metal, glass and other recyclable items. In one of the nearby Jhuggis, women and children segregate this waste with their bare hands, without any masks, gloves and boots. They earn around Rs 100-130 per day after selling the segregated waste to the recyclers market. These are some of the images showcased in the recently concluded photo exhibition by Aman Trust at Jawaharlal Nehru University. There is an old saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, however, for 350000 (approx) waste pickers in the capital, Delhi’s Trash is their livelihood.

Indian Rag Pickers Forage For Recyclables At Delhi Landfill Site

With the launch of neo-liberal policies in 2005, under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Rural Mission, a large chunk of Delhi’s waste has been privatised. With waste becoming new business arena for big private players subcontracted by Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), livelihoods of waste pickers are increasingly being disrupted. For the past several years, MCD has been toying with the idea of converting city’s trash into electricity primarily to address excess waste and shortage of electricity. Despite evidences of technology failure and bitter opposition from residents and environmental groups, four waste to energy incinerators have cropped up in the capital. Supported by UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism, these projects often receive climate subsidies and carbon credits according to the amount of methane captured from landfills (as a result of the breakdown of organic waste) or the amount of waste that is incinerated. Needless to say, it gives operators incentive to increase waste disposal rather than recycling it. Technical solutions to the issue of waste, often figuring in official plans, increasingly favour bringing various process of waste handling under a uniform system. In other words, inclusive waste management calls for increased role of private sector which further leads to the displacement of the informal recycling sector.

The World Bank estimates that waste pickers comprise around 1-2 % of the world population. The International Labour Organization reports that there are six million waste pickers in India. In Delhi there are three civic agencies who are in charge of managing waste namely MCD, New Delhi Municipal Corporation and Delhi Cantonment Board. Chintan, an advocacy group, states that the informal sector picks 15-20 % of the city’s waste and plays a considerable role in recycling. Pickers and collectors are adding more value than their own income to waste producers’ income and to the saving of the city government’s expenditure for disposing waste, argue A. K. Dikshit of Society of Economic and Social Research.

Every day, Delhi produces nearly 8,500 metric tonnes of waste and informal labour mediates the course of this waste from buildings and households to disposal sites. Waste pickers (locally called Kacharawallah) and ‘itinerant waste collectors’ (Kabadis or Kabadiwallah) constitutes the lowest rung in the occupational ladder for they collect waste directly from its origin. They are often the most marginalized, hence they do not have alternative livelihood options to which they can move. The waste cycle includes waste buyers (middlemen) who buy waste from pickers and sell it to large buyers which subsequently go to recyclers. Pickers and collectors cannot operate without having access to waste.

Even though being reclaiming agents, waste pickers are paid only for what they deliver without receiving any other benefits. Because they are self-employed and are not recognized or recorded in formal sector, labour legislation or other policies do not apply to them, says Dharmendra Kumar of All India Kachra Shramik Maha Sangh. Providing a fascinating account of the world of waste pickers in Delhi, in her book ‘Of Poverty and Plastics: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy ’, Kaveri Gill points out that waste pickers are mostly Dalits, Muslim minorities, Christian converts and Bangladeshi migrants who mostly belong to castes that have historically been engaged in ‘unclean’ and ‘polluting’ livelihood. In the socially segmented Delhi, their occupational mobility and access to waste is further mediated by negotiations, compromises and interaction with indifferent residents, suspicious gatekeepers of colonies, policemen and superior municipal sweepers.

As the world class city marches towards her twin targets of cleanliness and power generation through the so called scientific waste management, invisible waste pickers sitting by the road sorting scraps battle for their livelihood.

The author is at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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