They are an invisible presence in the city, unnoticed even as they carry out a task integral to maintaining the city. On March 1, recognized globally as International Waste Pickers’ Day in memory of 11 workers who were brutally murdered in Colombia in 1992, we take a look at the work, lives and struggles of three wastepickers in the city.
Tarun’s first brush with waste work started when he was less than 10 years old. Still a student of class V, he accompanied his brother from the village on a visit to Hyderabad and began to help his brother with collecting and sorting waste. By the time he was 13, he had moved permanently to Hyderabad, and some time after that entered into waste picking as a full-time occupation. “My parents have 3 acres of land in the village. If the rains are good, we get food, if they aren’t then we face a tough time. So, I came to the city to make a living.”
He worked alongside his brother and between the two of them they managed to make a decent living. “I had studied until X, but my brother was uneducated. So, when I came, we managed to make more money.” His brother soon left the city, but Tarun stayed back and continued the job. It has been more than 15 years since he left his village and more than 10 years since he began working with waste. Today he manages to make enough of a living to support his family of two children. He proudly mentions that his children go to a private school, and insists that his children should not enter waste work. “I have done it for years, I want them to study and find jobs. Let this difficulty be done with just us. I hope they have a more comfortable living.”
Suvartha, was born and raised in the midst of waste work. “This is my only skill”, she says. She was born and has always lived in the same basti. Although her parents were farm labourers at some point in their lives, they migrated to the city many years ago, and had been doing waste work for the most part of their lives in Hyderabad. She stopped going to school when she was in class V, and joined them at work. Segregation of waste is traditionally a woman’s job and Suvartha learnt to do that very early. She was married much before she turned 18, and her skills were transferred from one household to another — she started going to work along with her husband.
While most people come into waste work through their families, Santoshi is of a more unusual breed, entering the profession to augment the household income alongside other work. At 18, she has been in this occupation for 3 years now. Dropping out of school in class VII, because “she just was not interested”, she approached Suvartha to help her find ways to contribute to the household income. Her mother is a domestic help and her father is currently unemployed. Santoshi does waste segregation to help the family pay off their debts. Interestingly, she also has a tailoring machine and occasionally dabbles in stitching and tailoring and also wants to learn mehendi design.
Do people question her choice of work? “Well, no one has asked me until now and even if they do, I don’t care. I choose to work and I know its value.”
“We don’t shy away from hard work”
A common thread in all the conversations was the hard work they were willing to put in to get out of poverty. The collection of waste is done entirely by private individuals and most of them work 7-hour shifts for at least 6 days a week.
“It is all about being habituated. We are habituated to hard work. If you have to earn a living, you need to put in hard work. It is easy to make one wrong move, but very tough to do the right things. I have built trust in people that I work for over years. Unless you work hard, these things cannot be built”, says Tarun.
For Santoshi, what matters is her ability earn. “I don’t want to get married right away. I like what I do and I want to keep working. It is important to me that I am earning.”
However, they wish they were given more support from the government.
Tarun says, “I wish the government would pay at least one person in the family to do this job. We currently make money out of collections from individual households or resident welfare association salaries, apart from sale of recyclables. However, that is not enough. Technically it comes up to just one person’s income, so does my wife work for free?”
Suvartha has no comments about what the government should do with respect to their work. She just wants better living conditions. “I wish they make better housing facilities for us. We are willing to work hard and support our children and ourselves. I don’t have great desires – just a decent house, an income to support ourselves and we will live by that.”