How The Dream Of ‘Clean India’ Ignores Ragpickers Who Work For Little Money And No Rights

WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

By Abhimanyu Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

A rag-picker sorts scrap at a collection centre for recycling waste material in the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri July 3, 2007. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri (INDIA) - RTR1REOV
Image source: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

India has a serious garbage disposal problem. The quantum of garbage generated has gone up and even smaller cities are producing more rubbish than before. The landfills are overburdened and proper segregation of waste is a crying need. And while the problem continues to pile on unabated, the people carrying this burden, the ragpickers whose services almost all of us rely on for keeping our surroundings clean, continue to languish unacknowledged by the government.

Despite performing a very useful social service at great risk to their health and well-being, for little money, their contribution to our dream of a Swachch Bharat is clearly being undermined. Youth Ki Awaaz spoke to Shashi Bhushan Pandit, who runs the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (All India Ragpickers Union) (AIKMM) to know his views on the subject. In an hour-long conversation, Pandit touched upon various aspects of the issue. He said that there are around 40 lakh ragpickers in India, with five lakh in Delhi alone.

Over the years, one of the main demands of AIKMM has been that the government should acknowledge the ragpicker as a stakeholder in the entire process of garbage disposal and management. Currently, even though it is the ragpicker who puts in the footwork to collect waste from door-to-door, his work is not recognised as there are contractors and sub-contractors above him who reap the rewards for his work, given that he has no rights. In fact, Pandit said that the Draft Waste Management Rules 2015 accepted the demand for ragpicker’s rights but in a “vague” way.

shashi pandit
Shashi Bhushan Pandit

“What we want is inclusive rights for the ragpickers. These are services beneficial to the environment. In Bogota, Columbia, every ragpicker is paid $2 per day by the municipality. In Brazil, they have made sure that only the ragpicker can pick the waste (from the source). Why can’t India do it? We say we are the biggest democracy. We agree the ragpicker is a stakeholder. Why can’t we give them rights? What’s the problem?” Pandit asked. He added that once they are granted rights, safety gear was likely to follow, along with health benefits and social security.

He also pointed out that without the involvement of the Labour Ministry and Urban Development Ministry, these rules could not be framed and implemented properly. Currently, only the environment ministry is entrusted with the task, along with the fertiliser ministry.

Explaining further, Pandit pointed out that the municipalities in India, which come under the state governments, had no system of collecting garbage from the source and this is where the rag-pickers came in. “According to the law under which a municipality is set up, it places dustbins according to the size of the population. It is assumed that the generator of the waste will drop it in the bin. After that, it is the responsibility of the municipality to collect it from there (the transfer station) and treat it at the landfill. An employee is appointed for the maintenance of the transfer station. Someone else is appointed to clean the streets. However, it is not the responsibility of the municipality to pick up the garbage from the source. That’s why the informal sector has filled this gap.”

Pandit added that this has in fact “become traditional work for the ragpickers community”. He went on, “What the ragpicker started to do was that he began to provide services at homes. What they do is, they collect the recyclable materials from the waste, and leave the rest at the transfer station.”

From transfer stations, waste is transferred to landfills where it is often burnt without segregation, causing environmental degradation. According to Pandit, landfills are unnecessary as almost all waste can be recycled and put to other uses. “They are not required. That’s because 90% of the waste is reusable. Almost 30% is recyclable, 50% is organic, and we are left with 20%. The remaining 20% consists of unused plastic and debris from construction,” he said.

While recyclable waste consists of metal and glass objects, the organic waste is generally the leftover from kitchens. Pandit said that the organic kitchen waste could be used as compost and his organisation was already doing that.

Compost pit constructed by AIKMM in Gurgaon

“We have constructed a compost pit in Gurgaon. There are 32 pits in all. Daily two to three tonnes of waste is processed here. You can use the compost in your fields and gardens. It works better than fertilisers,” he claimed.

He added that even debris and plastic could be recycled and utilised for other purposes. “Packaging plastic comes from the chips you consume. Or the wrapper on mineral water bottles advertising the brand. That’s why we see it on the streets because it is not recycled. This is because packaging plastic consists of aluminum foil,” explains Pundit.

“Secondly, we have debris from construction. That’s unusable too. However, they have a plant to process it now in Shastri Park in Delhi. They want to make tiles out of it for pedestrian lanes. Which leaves us only with the unused plastic. That should be the responsibility of corporates under the Corporate Social Responsibility scheme. They are earning profits from the sales. It can actually be recycled. Plastic is part of petrol products. Oil can be recovered from it. Candles can be made out of that.”

Pandit and his organisation are also opposed to Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants that are being offered as quick solutions. “The developed countries in the world have done away with them for two reasons. What happens in these plants is that you burn the waste. The heat produced is turned into energy. Now the thing is, if you burn plastic, it has two consequences. It produces dioxin. And when plastic rots, methane is produced. That’s why landfills keep burning, due to the methane produced. It contaminates the water and damages the soil, too. The impact on the environment is horrific. But our country does not have enough aware citizens,” rued Pandit.

Currently, Delhi has one operational WTE plant in Okhla which has been the target of a long-standing protest by the residents of the area. However, Pandit said that the residents were opposed to having the WTE plant in their area, and not against the technology per se.

He also objected to the alleged U-turn taken by the AAP government on the issue. “Yes, during elections Kejriwal said they were opposed to them. Recently, Manish Sisodia came and visited the plant, under instructions from him. 10 days later, he presented the budget for the Delhi government. In that, he provided for strengthening the Waste-to-Energy plants, as point number 129. They have abandoned the worldwide movement against such plants.”

As per the environment minister himself, waste in India is set to reach gigantic proportions of “165 million tonnes by 2030 and 450 million tonnes by 2050”. That is not just a cause for worry but an alarm bell for taking action.

Sometime last year, the Government had, as per reports, announced that they are going to give three best ragpickers and three associations following best practices, a national award worth INR 1.5 lakh for their efforts to keep India clean.

But is that enough?

“The ragpicker, despite doing work that benefits the municipality and society at large is condemned to live a very insecure existence,” closes Shashi Pandit.

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