By Abhimanyu Singh:
Mohammad Hashinoor Islam, 15, has never been to school.
Noor, as he likes to be known, works as a rag picker. He came to Delhi around eight years ago after his father, Maidul Islam, quit his job as a mason in Guwahati and shifted to Delhi.
Back home in Guwahati, Noor’s father, Maidul Islam made Rs. 100 to Rs. 150 per day working as a mason. He was eking out a livelihood somehow with that paltry remuneration but got into a dispute with some local youth. Once the situation became dangerous, he left Assam with his family and shifted to Delhi where he knew some people.
The senior Islam told me that it was the people he knew in Delhi who advised him to take up the rag picking business. “They said that it looked dirty but the pickings were good,” he said, standing next to his cart laden with rotting vegetables and leftover food stuff. This is the part of the waste that is of no use to him and it will be dropped at the community dustbin which the municipal bodies of Delhi provide in every colony. The organic waste is supplied to the Delhi government by the company that operates the community dustbins, to be used in the Waste-to-Energy plants.
The pickings did turn out to be good, confessed Maidul. He also admitted that he did still harbour a dream to return home some day and pick up the trade of a mason once again. “The rates have gone up to Rs. 500 per day,” he said, aware that new toilets were being built under the Swachh Bharat campaign and required the services of masons. He also told me that despite being a rag picker for eight years, earning a decent sum, he felt embarrassed about the nature of the work. “Even kids turn up their noses when they look at me working,” he said.
Moreover, he had to put Noor to work from a young age in order to make a substantial profit which is why he could not attend school.
Possibly for that reason, the senior Islam is receptive to the tantrums of his eldest son. “The other day, he told me that he won’t work if I did not get him a smartphone. So I did,” he told me, grinning.
Noor, who picks up the garbage from my house too had consulted me on the options before he went ahead and bought one. It cost him around Rs. 8000. It has a good video function, I realised when he showed me a video of a fire that broke out in his colony which he had captured.
Fires are a regular occurrence in Madanpur-Khadar where they live, on the outskirts of Delhi, according to Noor’s father.
In a recent fire, Noor told me, their house barely escaped being burnt down yet again – after only a period of eight to nine months. Noor lives here with his family of seven while one sister lives back home in their village in the Dhubri district of Assam.
“Last time, the government helped us a lot by running community kitchens, providing temporary accommodation and even compensation. However, they did not help as much this time around,” the senior Islam told me about what happens when fire suddenly guts their homes. He added that the last time around, all they could save from the fire was a small trunk with their identification papers. Everything else went up in flames and they had been able to set up the household again with the help of the money they received as compensation and with some help from the neighbours.
However, Noor told me that this time, there was pressure from the government to move their warehouse where they store the garbage to NOIDA, due to fire safety concerns. “As it is, it takes a long time to reach here (south Delhi) from Khadar every day. This will increase the time of the commute and cause us more trouble,” he rued.
Around 60 million tonnes of waste is generated annually in India. By 2030, it will go up to 165 million tonnes. More than two-third of it remains untreated, the environment minister Prakash Javadekar had said in July last year.
Of the approximately 40 lakh rag pickers in India who work on this waste for a livelihood, Noor and his father are two among the 5 lakh in Delhi alone. However, despite performing a very useful social service at great risk to their health and well-being, for little money, their contribution, as well as that of lakhs of others, to our dream of a Swachh Bharat is clearly being undermined.
Every day, except on Sundays, Noor and Maidul Islam wake up early in the morning, maximum by six AM, often earlier. They ride a cart attached to a bicycle every day from Khadar to Jangpura in south Delhi, a post-Partition, primarily refugee colony where they work. It takes approximately an hour for them to get there.
The father and son have an arrangement with one of the sweepers appointed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The sweeper lets them pick garbage from six lanes in the colony in total – others also have similar arrangements – and father and son work in three lanes each, daily.
For this arrangement, the sweeper takes most of the money they receive from the households whose garbage they collect. This could range from Rs. 100 to Rs. 200 per month. They don’t get to keep more than Rs. 50 out of that, Noor told me.
They also need to pay the private company that operates the Khatta or community dustbins some money to so they can dispose of the perishable stuff they end up collecting – leftover food in the main – at the site. This is usually about Rs. 200 per month.
What Noor and Maidul take for themselves from the waste is recyclable garbage: bottles, metal items, paper, cardboard, etc. These materials are collected and stored in the warehouse in Khadar over a period of a few days and once there is enough to be sold in one go, the contractor buys the lot.
But that’s not as simple as it looks.
The contractor needs the material regularly. This means that an incident of fire, for example, which can put Noor and Maidul out of work for a few days, can also lead to a loss in job. The three-room concrete structure that Maidul has been able to raise in Khadar for his family is due to the munificence of the contractor he works for and he can turn them out anytime he wants, he confided in me. “However, he understands if I fall sick for a few days,” the senior Islam added.
Not far from the Tughlaqabad fort in Delhi lies the Bengali colony where hundreds of rag pickers live and ply their trade. Many of them, like Noor and his father, are Bengali speaking and hence, the name of the colony. Their lives are not much different from the ones led by Noor and Maidul Islam. Other than those who speak Bengali, Hindi-speaking workers from UP – mainly Gorakhpur – also live and work here.
The area is a hub of waste segregation – which is the second stage in the process – overseen by men who supervise the work done by rag pickers.
Pradip Pal is a ‘contractor’ – as those who supervise rag pickers and sell the waste to factories for recycling are called. I met him in Bengali colony, outside his workplace, where he sat on the stairs to a small room and watched over a few rag pickers segregating waste.
Pal has been in the business for 12 years and he has 25 workers under him. They pick garbage from colonies like Govindpuri, C.R. Park and Kalkaji in south Delhi which are close to Tughlaqabad. On an average, they bring 400 kgs of garbage each day. It consists of paper, jute sacks, cardboard, and bottles, among other items.
Not unlike Maidul, the labourers who were segregating waste under the watch of Pal told me that they all got into the business through the help of others from the area they hailed from. “They were already working in this field when we came here and hence, it was convenient for us to get in this business,” said one of the labourers.
The labourers were cagey about sharing their names as they had no identification papers – the threat of persecution for being ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ is always extant.
They added that none of them spoke Hindi well and it made it difficult for them to get other jobs. “Language is a big factor,” said one.
All of them did odd jobs back home before shifting to Delhi some five to six years ago. They make Rs.125 to Rs. 150 every day here while Pal, their contractor makes around Rs. 400. “We just want our kids to study. We don’t have much hope for ourselves,” said a rag picker in his 40s. Another told me that the work was a means for them to “survive”.
Survival for them has other aspects too, other than work that is. Security, for example. “We have to pay the officials from Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the police in order to continue with the work,” Pal told me. The rag pickers working under him added that they usually kept their distance from the locals in the colony.
Not very far from where Pradip and his labourers work, is Mohammad Jalis’ shop. Unlike Pradip, Jalis, who sat surrounded with dirty sacks full of waste, deals only in metal and glass objects. “I don’t deal in stuff picked from the MCD dump yards or Khattas,” Jalis said, distinguishing himself from those who deal in waste that is considered filthy. “I only deal in clean stuff.”
Originally from Meerut and a father of six children, Jalis told me that his daily business was worth Rs. 2000 to 3000 while the profit per day was around Rs. 200 to 300.
Unlike Jalis, Shaymal Baral and Shubhankar Mondal have no such qualms about the “filthy” stuff. Their workplace is in the same lane as those of Pal and Jalis. “We even collect food stuff. If it is not rotting, it can be used to feed the cattle, especially chapattis,” Baral, the elder of the two partners told me.
Mondal got into the business with the help of his uncle who has moved up to being a middleman dealing with recycling factories in Nangloi and Ghaziabad, among other places.
“This is very good work although people look down upon us. We are proud of the work we do. We are helping both the society and the government,” Baral told me as Mondal nodded enthusiastically.
Both of them said that they believed the government should be paying some amount of money directly to the rag pickers and those involved in the business in other ways because the society at large benefitted out of it. I asked rag pickers about it as well and they also agreed though some said they were doing fine even without help from the government.
This is something activists concerned with these issues also want implemented – as Shashi Bhushan Pandit, who runs the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh had told me in an earlier interview.
When Javadekar spoke in July last year on the issue, he admitted that the “informal sector” – or the rag pickers – had “saved” the country. He wasn’t wrong, in fact, he spoke the precise truth. Without the services of rag pickers, the country will literally go to the dogs. However, instead of awarding three rag pickers every year – a noble but meaningless gesture – the government should start to include them as a stakeholder in the process and employ them officially so that they become eligible for benefits like health cards – which most of them don’t have as they told me – and a pension when they decide to retire.
The dream of Swachh Bharat needs foot soldiers. But no soldier can fight a war on an empty stomach. Mind it.