Unpaid and undervalued, how India's waste pickers fight apathy to keep our cities clean

There are an estimated 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain.
Unpaid and undervalued, how India's waste pickers fight apathy to keep our cities clean
Unpaid and undervalued, how India's waste pickers fight apathy to keep our cities clean
Written by:

Shoba Bansode has been working as a waste picker in Pune for over 15 years. She started doing this for a living since nobody would give her work as a domestic worker. “My son was also very small then, and citing that reason too, nobody would give me work in their households. At that time, one of my friends taught me waste picking. Using this as my only source of livelihood, I was able to provide for my child and raise him,” she says.

Shoba’s case is not an exception. Waste picking (or rag picking as it is commonly called) is a job that many end up in due to lack of other options. According to a study published in the International Research Journal of Environment Sciences, titled, Studies on the Solid Waste Collection by Rag Pickers at Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, India, 94% of the 150 waste pickers interviewed in the Jawahar Nagar landfill in Hyderabad, stated that they chose this job since there were no other alternatives available to them.

There are an estimated 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain (to scrap dealers) in order to make a living.

India generates an estimated 62 million tonnes of waste annually. Often in the chain of solid waste management, waste goes from households either to waste collectors or into the bin. From the bin, the waste travels to transfer stations and then finally to the landfill sites. However, through this entire journey, neither the households nor the municipal corporation actively segregate the waste. In some places, the aim is for the solid waste to be segregated in the end to be fed to a waste-to-energy plant, but in most cases they are just landfilled. In the landfill, the said waste continues to remain as is and piles up to resemble mountains, and eventually starts discharging poisonous gases and leachate into the air and soil respectively.

Despite the apathy of society at large and the municipal corporations’ incapacity, we have one of the best recycling rates in the world. In fact, our rates of recycling are far better than those in some of the most developed countries in the world. We recycle 70% of all PET bottles (water bottles and soft drink bottles) as compared to 31% in the USA. This is largely owing to the informal chain of recycling that exists in all of our cities. This chain starts with the waste pickers, who sell waste to scrap dealers, who in turn sell to aggregators and eventually the waste goes to recyclers.

Waste pickers either sort and segregate waste from waste containers, or transfer stations and landfills. The informal recycling sector contributes to 100% of all recycling in the country. Often, waste pickers hail from the most marginalised communities in urban spaces, and their marginalisation contributes to the lack of recognition of their work to the society.

WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), an international network of informal workers, describes waste picking in India as,

Waste picking ranks lowest in the hierarchy of urban informal occupations and a large number of those employed in this occupation are women and children. Illiterate, unskilled persons, migrants, those lowest in the caste hierarchy and the poorest of the poor, predominantly work as waste pickers as they are unable to find any other kind of employment.

Another report from WIEGO titled, Integrating Waste Pickers into Municipal Solid Waste Management in Pune, India, goes on to provide the data associated with this job in the Pune area. According to the report, almost all the waste pickers in Pune hail from Scheduled Castes and 90% of these waste pickers are women.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health doctor and an activist who supports pourakarmikas (street sweepers) in Bengaluru says, “I think in India this kind of work is quite different from that of other countries. There is no dignity of labour and certain castes and communities are deliberately kept to do this kind of work. I would call it a form of caste-based slavery.”

Regular harassment and lack of recognition

The work that waste pickers do is of utmost importance to our cities and the environment. There is enough data to identify that households with higher income generate way more dry waste than households with lower income. However, waste pickers whose job involves picking the dry waste for recycling, remain largely unrecognised and uncompensated by the system. They also face severe harassment from Savarna society for trying to make a living.

Saru Waghmare has been working as a waste picker in Pune for the last 25 years. She recalls a time when police harassment was very common for the work that they did. More than two decades ago, she, along with a group of other waste pickers used to travel by train to Pimpri to pick waste and bring it back. And the everyday journey was rife with harassment.

“Our bags would be full of waste, and if we saw any authorities coming to check, we would have to pour down all that we picked, along the tracks and walk back to collect all of it again. We used to be regularly called thieves. Sometimes, people would attempt to chase us away by sending dogs after us,” she says.

Parvati Theorat, another waste picker who has been doing this job for more than 15 years, says that at times, waste pickers also faced physical abuse. “We used to start our work very early in the day to get more waste, and were considered very suspicious by the public at large. So, some of the waste pickers would also get beaten,” she says.

Most municipal corporations have done next to nothing to recognise the work that waste pickers put in, which is a direct contribution to the job of the municipal corporation. Devi Das Kamble, a waste picker who has been doing this job for over 15 years adds, “The work that we do has economic and environmental value.”

Even official documentation does not recognise the work done by waste pickers towards solid waste management. The Swachh Bharat document does not even mention waste pickers in its entirety.

In 2015, former environment minister Prakash Javadekar had declared that a cash prize of Rs 150,000 ($2,330) would be given to three waste pickers and three associations involved in innovative waste management. While there are no updates regarding the same in over the last 2 years, it also seems like a one-time gimmick to declare an award, while not recognising the everyday realities of millions of waste pickers.

Apart from the apathy from municipal corporations to their situation, waste pickers also have to combat roadblocks put in by them. WIEGO quotes “Access to Waste” as a key issue that impacts waste pickers’ livelihoods. While a part of this is owing to the poor treatment of waste pickers by society, another factor is the privatisation of solid waste.

With plans of mega waste-to-energy projects, municipal corporations insist on removing bins, and allowing no space for waste segregation, thereby reducing the access to waste for waste pickers.

Surekha Maske and Begum Shaik work in Pimpri as waste pickers, and currently involve themselves in household waste collection under a contractor. However, one of their primary concerns is the proposed waste-to-energy project in Pimpri.

Surekha says, “With the proposed WTE plant, they are soon planning to remove all waste containers, and we anticipate that they will not allow us to segregate openly either. Effectively, the amount of dry waste that we get, which directly impacts our income, will go down considerably.”

Surekha’s concerns are reminiscent of the study titled Waste-To-Energy or Waste Of Energy that Chintan Environmental Research & Action Group, published in the aftermath of the waste-to-energy plant in Okhla, Delhi that was established in 2011.

While the study forecasted three scenarios, it said that a 33% reduction of waste by diversion to the Okhla waste-to-energy plant would drive children out of schools, impact the community’s chances of socio-economic mobility, and increase the likelihood that they will become chronically poor.

Surekha adds, “We work in this dirt and put our health at risk. But the municipal corporation does not care for our wellbeing. If we don’t recycle, imagine the impact on environment at large. Just imagine the number of trees that are going to be cut. They just don’t care about any of this.”

Health hazards

It is not surprising that a waste pickers’ job, though practically free for the Savarna society, comes with several health hazards for the workers themselves. Most households dispose waste together, including hazardous medical waste and soiled sanitary napkins and diapers.

The solid waste management rules, 2016, mandates households to wrap sanitary waste securely, and dispose them off separately. But, there are very few steps which have been taken to implement this rule.

Sylvia says, “A lot of biological waste gets disposed into general waste. It can be quite an exploitative system. Workers face all kinds of injuries and cuts while sorting through garbage.”

Apart from injuries, waste pickers face several occupational hazards in the long term as well. A 2017 report published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, titled, Prevalence, predictors and economic burden of morbidities among waste-pickers of Mumbai, India: A cross-sectional study, studied the health hazards of 200 waste pickers in Mumbai living on the edge of the Deonar dumping site. The report says,

Prevalence of respiratory symptoms such as difficulty in breathing and chronic cough was found to be significantly higher among the waste-pickers (28%). Stomach problems, viz. nausea, dysentery and intestinal pain, were found to be higher among the waste-pickers. Additionally, the nature of their occupation requires the waste-pickers constant bending, which raised the risk of musculoskeletal disorders in many body parts. Waste-pickers have to climb all the way up a pile of garbage to collect waste and climb down with the pile of garbage usually with heavy bags of collected waste rested either on their back, head or shoulders. Hence carrying of heavy weights could also be a reason for the higher prevalence of MSDs among the waste-pickers.

Since there is no recognition to their work, their access to healthcare also remains limited. Sylvia says, “Ideally, healthcare should be universally available to all. It should not be based on who can pay. Anyone should be able to walk into any facility and get treated. However, people who work in these kind of occupations, are treated even worse by hospitals and health centres. These groups have even lesser access to these facilities.”

Unionization and waste pickers’ collectives

Waste pickers’ unions and collectives have helped assert their needs and improve their income and quality of work to a certain extent.

Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) is a waste pickers’ union, which has been in existence since 1993 in Pune. Saru is one of the first members of the union. Describing the value the union had to their work, she recalls the first set of protests that she was part of in the newly created KKPKP.

They had protested against the municipal corporation with a large rakhi made from waste material, symbolically asking the municipality to support them. A series of these protests later, waste pickers started getting identity cards from the municipal corporation, thereby making it the first step in recognising waste pickers’ contribution to the city at large. Over a period of time, several protests and representations later, in 2003, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) also agreed to provide basic insurance health cover to waste pickers and their families.

“We are also human beings, we also deserve the rights of a human being,” says Saru.

Identity cards help in avoiding unnecessary questioning and harassment. According to reports from the First Global Strategic Workshop for Waste Pickers, in 2012, some waste pickers shared that police harassment had reduced ever since they got ID cards. Others could access health insurance through their organisations.

Waste pickers have also experienced some practical benefits after getting organised. For instance, SWaCH, a wholly waste picker-owned cooperative, now gets contracts from the PMC for door-to-door waste collection. This has not only established waste pickers’ right to dry waste, but has also boosted their income. Shoba, who is one of the leaders at KKPKP, currently does door-to-door collection from 250 households. She says, “We now don’t have to walk around too much. We get more quantities of cleaner dry waste. Plus we collect the user fee from households, so our income has doubled.”

Saru, also does door-to-door waste collection from 400 households, and additionally manages a large composting unit in a housing quarter along with her husband. Apart from this, she is also a leader who regularly engages with her community and presents the issues at meetings all over the world. She looks at her entire community as her own and says, “When I do this work, and share everybody’s experiences and emotions, and represent them world over, I feel happy.”

In some cases, waste pickers have also moved up one rung in the chain of waste recycling. For instance, R. Annamma used to be a waste picker, but she now runs a dry waste collection centre along with her husband in Bengaluru. This was facilitated by  Hasirudala, a waste pickers’ organisation in the city, of which she’s a part. Annamma says, “Earlier, we just used to pick waste. Now, we are owners at a place and we give employment to others. I never thought we would be in this place. If we had been part of something like Hasirudala 30 years ago, we would have had a better quality of life.”

Largely, the waste pickers organisations and unions have helped amplify their voices and concerns. Another waste picker says, “We are now many in number. We don’t feel alone and we are not scared of anything.” In their monthly meetings, the leaders bring up a large number of issues that each of them face, which are then discussed and a solution is arrived at. As I watch one of KKPKP’s leader meetings, one particular issue was discussed in depth. One of the garbage collectors had suddenly lost his livelihood. He says, “The corporator in my locality suddenly introduced a waste collection vehicle in the area where I have been doing waste collection. How do I get my income now?”

As nearly 100 of them discuss and try to arrive at the rightful course of action, Saru asserts, “Nobody will give us our rights. We have to fight for it. And being organised helps us fight for it.”

Systemic support for waste pickers

There are a few changes that waste pickers have seen with the municipal corporation’s support over years. For instance, the GHMC gave pushcarts to waste pickers many years ago and in recent times gave autos at subsidised rates in an effort to support waste pickers and their livelihoods. The BBMP is now signing a MoU with waste pickers to aid them in running dry waste collection centres. These efforts have helped in establishing waste pickers’ right to collect dry waste directly from households. This gives them recognition, thereby avoiding any harassment from systems and authorities.

Saru adds, “From where we started, we have come a long way. We used to face a lot of harassment initially, but our work is relatively better now. Our work increased and working conditions also improved. Even households where we work know us closely and understand what we do.”

Annamma agrees. She says, “Earlier people did not know who a waste picker was and what they did. Now, they know what our role in the society is. Earlier, they never segregated or recycled. Now they also segregate in their own houses.”

This does not mean the support they receive is complete in any way. The garbage collectors in Hyderabad do not have any support for health. Shoba says that there are several things that need to be done in the locality that she services.

Even basic things like a decent pair of gloves are hard to come by from the municipal corporation. She also adds another concern: “The healthcare that we are offered is not extended to our children when they cross 25 years of age. Do they not need healthcare after 25?”

They have to constantly work to put forth their demands. “I like what I do now. I get a monthly salary and it feels like a job. However, we are ready to protest at any point in time. There is no other way we will get what we want,” says Mangal Gaekwad, a union leader who is in charge of waste collection from 22 housing societies.

Breaking out of waste picking: Educating the next generation

One of the most barbarous practices in our country is that of child waste pickers. Although child labour is not legal in India, there are several children who are forced to pick waste from garbage dumps in order to feed themselves. The First Global Strategic Workshop for Waste Pickers also discussed that while children in waste picking is common in Asia, it is mitigated where strong organisations exist.

Sylvia says, “Realistically speaking, with respect to the generation that is involved in these forms of slavery, it is almost impossible to get out of it. Young people and children from these communities should not engage in these occupations. A large amount of the focus should be on preventing the next generation from doing the same work. Only they can the communities break out of the cycle.”

Shoba agrees. She says, “Once when I was sick, I brought my son along to help me with my work. But, that was the last time I brought him. I don’t want him to continue this.” Her son is now in college, pursuing an undergraduate degree.

A lot of waste pickers cite access to education for their children as one of the biggest benefits of being part of the union. Saru says, “We motivate our children a lot to pursue education.”

Annamma agrees as she proudly talks about her 3 daughters. “My oldest daughter was a school topper and she also received government scholarship owing to that. She is now in her second year of college,” she says.

With the support of the union, several of them have been able to access education using the Right To Education act, and owing to their own credit collective, they also have access to loans for education.

Surekha, who got into this work since her mother was also doing this, hopes that her children will not have to do the same. She says, “I did not like working with garbage initially. But now, I am used to it. But we made sure that both my children received scholarships for their education. Additionally, the community works together to ensure that we stop child marriages. We also go to schools to ensure that our kids can get in using the RTE Act.”

While unions and collectives repeatedly bring up issues related to immediate working conditions and the betterment of it, Sylvia brings forward an important point. She says, “If one were to look at this politically and ideologically, then owing to the caste nature of the work, people who are engaged in these occupations should be rehabilitated into alternative jobs. They need to be rehabilitated into other occupations which do not have the caste indignity associated with it. Others can, in turn, be delegated to service this work. As long as Dalits are doing this job, nobody will invest in ensuring the work is better.”

Saru adds, “In the last 25 years, I have seen more than 200 children of waste pickers become educated and several of them have gone on to become doctors and engineers. I feel that they are all my children, I am very happy to see that.”

With inputs from Tejas Harad.

Loading content, please wait...

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute