Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely of the authors and do not represent the views of YLAC as an organisation.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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