India Fellow
Aug 15 · 5 min read
There is an estimate of 3.5 to 4 million rag-pickers in India. Image courtesy Flickr

Do you know where does your waste go after it leaves your home? How many hands does it change? Most us have limited knowledge about it. Either the Municipal Corporation (called Nagar Nigam in India) is collecting it from our houses and dumping it to the dumpsites or we throw our waste in the nearest dustbin installed by them again. But after that, a lot happens of which we aren’t aware. In South Asian countries, waste pickers finding recyclable items from dumpsites or Corporation dustbins is a common sight. They collect plastic bottles, metals, polythene, cardboard etc. from there and sell it to small scrap dealers to make some money out of it.

So what’s the big deal? Why should we care? We throw our waste and they make their living out of it. Shouldn’t they be thankful to us? Well, not really! In a country like ours, the Nagar Nigam mechanism of waste collection is sluggish and unreliable, except in a few places where it is doing an exceptional job. These waste pickers, commonly known as rag pickers are a big source of collecting trash. In a study by WEIGO (Women In Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) 70% of our plastic bottles go to recycling as compared to only 31% in developed countries like US of A. But still, their work is unrecognized and undervalued.

These waste pickers not only collect waste for their living but also help in keeping our environment clean. They are the unknown environmentalists, who are never valued. Instead, they are shooed away when they enter our societies. They are labelled as thieves and are restricted in many places. Their work is considered menial and nobody bothers to talk to them unless they are agitated by their mere presence. There is no guarantee of daily work for them, plus they bear a threat of personal security. I’ve even come across stories of physical abuse in my three months of experience with rag pickers here in Dehradun.

Their work starts early in the morning. Carrying a bag on their back, they move around the city and dumpsites to gather the recyclables. In these dumpsites, they are prone to many diseases and injuries. They dig through plastic waste, left-over and rotten food in polythene bags, human faeces and bio-medical waste. Without any proper gear and equipment, they work in such an environment all through the day.

In Dehradun, there are 700 ‘registered’ rag pickers as per a recent survey done by our organisation, Waste Warriors. They are all scattered in different parts of the city. Wherever they live, certain features are common in every community. Since most of them have migrated from Bihar, Rajasthan, and Assam, they live in temporary settlements with narrow streets where hardly a two-wheeler can enter.

Most of their houses are covered with tin sheds, supported by bamboo. They have no legal rights over their place of living because of which they are not eligible to get electricity and water supply. I am working through Waste Warriors for social and economic upliftment of waste pickers. This means focusing on de-stigmatisation of their work, opening their bank accounts, providing insurance facilities, better healthcare access either by incorporating them into state health mechanism or by organising health camps at their places. It is my first time to have interacted and worked with the waste pickers’ community.

As a part of work, I go to their colonies for rapport building. Initially, it felt like a compulsion but now I’ve started enjoying it. Meeting new people and sharing their stories has become a part of my job. I have made new friends of different age groups who are full of interesting experiences. All they need is ‘a ear to hear’. Most of the times, they are confined to their own community and the other people hardly bother to talk to them. To my amazement, I found the boy (in the picture above) in one of the waste pickers’ settlements. He always welcomes and greets us when we go to his place. Harsh is 12 and for a child his age, he has enough maturity. He is curious to know about new things. Since his parents are not educated, he helps them in daily calculations of waste transactions. Whenever we talk about our ideas for the community, he prefers listening to us with utmost attention and then surprises us by explaining some points to other people on our behalf.

This is Harsh. He helped us in distributing leaflets of medical camp in Sapera basti.

Harsh studies in 5th standard and has big dreams. He wants to learn dancing but has no time for it, as his evenings are spent assisting his parents in segregating daily waste.

There are many kids like him who are not able to enjoy their childhood because they are dragged in the waste business. Some of them are also addicted to drugs. Many organisations in the country are working on this issue and I came across one named Aasraa Trust. They work with the children of rag pickers and provide them a safe space where they can learn through fun and innovative methods. The key is to deal with love and affection, in order to keep the kids engaged and interested as well as to attract more children in their learning centres.

I got inspired by their attitude towards waste pickers. The ideology guiding their actions is that love is a powerful tool which can bind people together. Every human being wants to be treated with love and respect and when it comes to a neglected community like that of rag-pickers, they highly appreciate if someone treats them with respect probably because they are denied of it from a long time. After working with them in the last few months, I got to learn about their contribution in making our environment clean. They play a crucial role in the waste management cycle and I hope to bring change in people’s attitude towards them. A little acknowledgment for their efforts will do a lot of good.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shubham Mishra 2019 India Fellow, placed with Waste Warriors in Dehradun. Shubham is from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh and has studied Social Work. His interest is in grassroots development.

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