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Are India’s Waste Pickers Legally Recognised As Workers?

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The plumes of black suffused his debilitated lungs and the fetid stench stung his weary eyes. Ravi trudged through the colossal mountains of garbage, his feet lacerated by the jagged shards of glass that littered the trash-filled path.

He was fatigued: hours of back-breaking labour had yielded only a few meagre pieces of bread and his effort to bargain for enough to feed his family had been but a futile endeavour.

While Ravi’s story may be a work of fiction, it is a reality for India’s 5 million waste pickers.

climate change women
Representative Image.

The consequences of deteriorating environmental conditions on marginalised groups is a significant concern. While substantial research has been conducted on the widespread impact of climate change on the environment, the dichotomy between the effects of climate change suffered by the rich and the poor is often overlooked.

People in marginalised communities, especially those living in deplorable conditions, bear the worst reverberations of the global climate crisis. These disproportionate effects on marginalised groups bring light to the term ‘climate justice’ – the idea that climate change is an ethical, social, and political concern and not simply an environmental matter.

The repercussions of climate change being suffered by disenfranchised individuals can already be seen in various places across India. One of the more conspicuous areas where this is observed is through the growing dependence on landfills to manage India’s waste.

 Who Cleans India’s Waste?

According to former Environment Minister Shri Prakash Javadekar, India generates 62 million tonnes of waste, of which 43 million tonnes is collected annually and only 28% is treated.

Due to these abysmal rates of garbage produced, combined with the fact that there is a lack of resources and poor implementation of regulations, the country is forced to dump its waste in one place. This leads to the creation of landfills like in Deonar and Bhalswa, in the biggest metropolitan cities of Mumbai and New Delhi, respectively.

But who are the invisible warriors behind India’s “waste management system”? The backbone of this system is formed by waste pickers. The selection of people for such a job is inextricably linked to the caste system even though the Indian Constitution has forbidden discrimination based on caste.

woman picking trash
Representative Image.

Today, 90% of the waste pickers are Dalits or belong to scheduled caste or scheduled tribes. Denied formal job opportunities, these communities are systematically forced into working in landfills and are subjected to a plethora of ailments caused by the toxic gases discharged from the collection of waste and leachate.

This can vary from asthma, tuberculosis and eye irritations to potentially fatal diseases like Dengue, Malaria, Japanese Encephalitis and Kala Azar.

Additionally, the waste pickers have to bend their backs while sifting through the waste constantly and, thus, fall prey to musculoskeletal disorders. Despite this, hospitals exclude them from government health schemes based on their identity and occupation.

Among the primary challenges faced by the waste picker communities, not being recognised legally as a worker under the law is a prime one. The cost of non-recognition is high. It results in the waste picker communities facing numerous forms of discrimination and harassment, with repeated violations of their basic and fundamental rights.

They are often seen and labelled as vagrants. State municipalities do not legally permit waste pickers to segregate and sell waste from garbage dumps across the country. They are deemed to be committing theft under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Three main policies govern solid waste management in India that aims to target the marginalised communities:

  1. NAPCC-National Action Plan on Climate Change.
  2. MSWMM-Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual issued by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation.
  3. Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016).

After an in-depth analysis, a common theme can be observed. While these policies recognise waste pickers and their concerns and acknowledge that the unsanitary conditions in these landfills are overly problematic for the waste pickers frequenting these sites, there are no actionable elements to these policies.

plastic waste
Representative Image.

While the government is beginning to address the issue through recognition, that should only serve as a stepping stone to action, as there aren’t any policies or schemes in place that protect the waste picker communities, despite the exponential risks to their health and occupational welfare.

Some international best practices that target these communities are:

  • Seoul, South Korea:

The country is socio-economically similar to India and was facing similar challenges in the past. However, with strong political will, they were able to embark on numerous restoration projects and waste management initiatives that bettered the situation of the marginalised communities. One main idea that can be implemented in Delhi is the conversion of waste to electricity.

  • South Sudan: 

There has been a lot of implementation here in terms of healthcare. To name a few, workers are guaranteed occupational safety through the provision of gloves, masks and immunisation.

  • Brazil: 

In Brazil, waste picking is now supported by the government and is recognised as an occupation. Organised waste pickers are seen as legitimate stakeholders who can voice their opinions at the local, state and national levels, and it’s been reported that waste pickers enjoy their job and consider it to be decent work.

The more obvious policy benefits for these communities would be admittance to secure livelihoods and social security benefits. Additionally, as these communities face major health risks, the formulation of policies with health as the primary driver would increase awareness and enable access to healthcare.

Progress has been made in various national and state-level policies. The government has begun to recognise, identify and integrate informal sector workers into formal waste management initiatives and schemes.

Social acceptance and regularisation of the recycling sector could also help integrate the informal sector, comprised of individuals from marginalised communities, into existing policies.

With these considerations in mind, we have framed a list of prudent policies that have been substantiated by our interviews with stakeholders ranging from healthcare professionals to experts and civil society organisations which can be referred to in our research paper.

Hopefully, through our research, people like Ravi will one day be able to enjoy a life devoid of their constant daily struggles in the colossal mountains of garbage that are drowning our country.

By Pratham Mehrotra, Khwaab Kapoor, Akshata Kalyanaraman, Kinnori Mukherjee and Dhruv Roy

Feature Image via flickr
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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