“I went to my sister’s place,” Rama said. “She told me, ‘I have two kilos of rice left. Let’s just divide it up’.” That’s what they did. Divided up the rice, cooked it with salt and made it last for two days. Now, when I called her up, she was brewing tea leaves for breakfast. “What to do? There’s nothing left,” she sighed.
Rama picks trash on one of Delhi’s largest landfills. In her gali (slum-alley), the kids are all being fed tea for lunch and dinner. “Lal chai-what to do?” Rama’s neighbour, Shanti, told us. What she means is boiled tea without milk and sugar. One of the problems with this, they explain over the course of our various telephonic conversations, is that the tea runs out of colour and flavour. Truth be told, the children of Bhalsawa landfill are drinking boiled water for meals.
Days after the country went on a #lockdown, how has this impacted our #Wastepickers lives?
Watch the video to get a first-hand account of the stories from the ground.
Let's contribute to the betterment of their lives. Link in the comments below@safaisena pic.twitter.com/HAqevvpuU5
— Chintan (@ChintanIndia) March 29, 2020
These are the same children who excel in science and math—the focus of Chintan’s No Child in Trash Programme here. Two years ago, a child invented a cooler for the summer, made entirely of the trash from the landfill nearby, so his mother wouldn’t sweat so much while cooking his lunch. Today, she can’t sweat, because there’s nothing to cook. A community kitchen that the Chief Minister promised hasn’t yet started. Nobody has seen this scale of a crisis, and they’re struggling to with relief.
Meanwhile, there’s the curfew. The police are not letting anyone out of their homes. It’s the most desolate you’ll ever see this city of 25-million plus. Zoom is the new Chintan office, where dozens of people are collecting donations to create ration kits. A kit will have enough rice, wheat, oil and a few spices for a family of 6 if they eat modestly-enough, but nothing to spare. There’s soap too, and masks. School students, interns, retired folks, former colleagues have all been transferring donations. While one team tracks this, another is getting permissions to step out to distribute the kits. Two colleagues are convincing stores to let them buy in bulk-assuring them they are no hoarders or profiteers.
Wastepickers who offer formal services can hope to work—Chintan’s got them their documents. But, they won’t get to sell the recyclables they collect, leaving them without significant incomes. Those who work at landfills, or operate in dumpsters and other informal spaces, are entirely jobless. They have nothing, not even the money for food, which they buy every few days, as they sell waste. Most Indian wastepickers experience COVID-19 like this: jobless.
Chintan appreciates that the media shared our story from the wastepickers community. We thank you for the quick action#Covidmekabadi #IndiaFightsCorona #ArvindKejriwal #AamAadmiParty https://t.co/Fa2vHAJuGK
— Chintan (@ChintanIndia) March 28, 2020
Bordering Delhi and Haryana, Kusumpur Pahari has been ravaged by hunger. Located on the border of one of India’s most ancient forests earlier, this slum began asking for a basic human right to survive the pandemic: water. It had none. The government ignored its plea. “How are we supposed to survive this disease? They’re saying wash your hands. But with what?” asked Ram Agya, an anguished father of two.
A twitter campaign by Chintan and Safai Sena resulted in a response by the government: There are hundreds of places to wash hands, use those. Problem was, there was nothing walking distance. “The police are beating us if we go looking for water,” said a despondent Rekha, on a video that the community had made. Eventually, using phones and videos, the story was shared with the Indian Express. And then, after pressure, water reached these folks.
Update: @DelhiJalBoard has provided water to the community of Kusumpur Pahari!
The locals are maintaining #SocialDistanacing while filling in water.
We thank the media and @DelhiJalBoard for the prompt action. #COVIDmekabadi #IndiaFightsCorona pic.twitter.com/jkGqguDZEH
— Chintan (@ChintanIndia) March 27, 2020
Most wastepickers also experience COVID-19 like this: marginalised. They often live in un-recognised slums (yes, the worst housing is also stratified). This means they need to fight harder to ride out this pandemic. “Here we are, serving all these people all these years, keeping their localities spotless,” says Rokhan, a waste-picker in New Delhi. “Don’t you think we are right in asking for their help now? We also have to keep our children safe.”
He’s been asking people whose waste he collects, to help. Some give him food every day, others some money. Some have told him it’s also hard for them. “I know everyone won’t help us, but I know some people are decent. And some understand that if we don’t show up tomorrow, the disease may become worse for everyone,” Rokhan pointed out. “I’m seeing who is what kind of person. It’ll be clear now.”
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The Chintan Team