By Imran Khan:
Saira Bano, aged 32, has always lived on the landfill in Bhalaswa in North Delhi, the place where most of Delhi’s trash is dumped every day. Saira was just 6 months old when she came to Delhi along with her parents, two brothers, and two sisters, from Kolkata in West Bengal. Saira never got to go to school. She spent her time picking trash on the landfill, with her parents and siblings. The would spend the day separating paper, plastics and a hoard of other recyclable materials from soggy discarded food. They would gather and separate used sanitary napkins and diapers, rusted blades, needles and syringes – stuff thrown indiscriminately into the city’s mixed garbage.
Her family was worked hard and struggled from dawn till dusk on a dangerous landfill where avoiding severe burns from spontaneous combustion of methane-rich waste was the norm. The mounds of soggy wet waste were treacherous, and the workers often slipped and fell right into in it. Trucks carrying garbage would sometimes drop an avalanche of trash, almost burying hundreds of waste pickers all over the landfill. This was the only life Saira and her family knew.
Growing up, Saira’s hard life continued. The living conditions were dismal. They had no electricity, safe drinking water or access to clean toilets. Her husband Lutfar, also a waste picker, despaired over not being able to make their lives and those of their five little children better.
In 2012, Saira attended a meeting held by the Safai Sena, an association of waste pickers, doorstep waste collectors, itinerant waste buyers and small waste traders, in her community. They talked about formalising and training waste pickers to enable them to obtain more dignified livelihoods. Saira was curious, if not entirely convinced. She joined Safai Sena and its partner Chintan. As it happens, she found herself being trained to pick up electronic waste, and selling it to authorised dealers. She knew all about e-waste, in any case, having found so much of it in the trash.
Saira began to focus on e-waste and made it her specialisation. She began collecting electronic waste from households and shops. She would collect old mobile phones, laptops, monitors and other electronic devices that people indiscriminately disposed of.
Saira now became a part of a whole new initiative by Chintan to convert ‘toxic’ to ‘green’ and generate livelihoods, specifically for women. By her own interest, she became part of Chintan’s Responsible Electronics Initiative, which trains informal sector actors to serve as grassroots e-waste collectors and sell to an authorised recycler. Saira now sells the electronic waste via Chintan, authorised by the Delhi Government to collect e-waste for safe recycling, to an authorised recycler. She is directly paid by the recyclers for her work. Chintan comes in use to collectors like her because, no matter what, they collect very small amounts. Under the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016, only authorised collectors can collect e-waste which they must store in self-run authorised collection centres, which are hard and expensive to run. Besides, the recyclers accept large quantities of e-waste. But Saira and others collectively gather enough e-waste, along with Chintan’s own e-waste drives, to attract recyclers.
By doing this, Saira has not merely conjured up a livelihood for herself, but prevented e-waste from being burned or poorly recycled, generating dioxins and furans. Very few people will ever acknowledge this, but it is people like Saira -poor, illiterate, but enthusiastic about being trained for the future, who truly help India to keep its promise in the Stockholm Convention – that of phasing out furans and dioxins. Saira’s work has thus been rechanneled into something that brings her dignity and a far more stable livelihood. And even if the electronics manufacturers don’t boost their efforts, they are the cutting edge force who can implement responsible electronics in India.
“I can now send my 5 boys to school. I never touched fresh clean paper as a child working on the landfill, but my boys will,” says Saira with a satisfied smile on her face.