Dumped And Doomed: Reclaiming Livelihoods Of The Waste Pickers

Posted on July 2, 2013 in Specials

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.