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Livelihoods of Delhi’s waste pickers in jeopardy

Written By krishna on Sunday, April 17, 2011 | 9:11 AM

From rags to ditches

Corporatisation of waste management has put the livelihoods of Delhi’s 3.5 lakh waste pickers in jeopardy. Avalok Langer reports

OUTSIDE THE mind space of Delhi’s elite, a war is brewing. It is a battle for livelihood, a fight to find the answer to one question: Who has a right to the city’s garbage? The Delhi government’s push towards corporatisation of door-to-door collection of 8,000 tonnes of solid municipal waste has been formulated with scant regard for the city’s 3.5 lakh waste pickers. Or for the neighbourhoods where this waste is to be incinerated in waste-to-energy plants.

Like most cities in India, Delhi has been unable to adopt a structured system of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management. The garbage that leaves our homes, markets and offices every day has now become a bone of contention. Though 80 percent of waste collection has been contracted to corporates by the authorities, there is still a large unorganised sector working on the streets to keep Delhi clean. Their livelihood hovers in a grey area created by legal semantics and the question of ownership.

Delhi’s municipal waste consists of 40 percent organic, 30 percent recyclable and 20 percent inert material. The responsibility to collect, segregate and transport waste from garbage dumps to landfills has never been shouldered satisfactorily by the civic authorities. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is responsible for 95 percent of the city, 3 percent is with the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and 2 percent with the Cantonment Board.

Since the segregation of waste by households never took off, this task is performed by the underprivileged, those who make their living from picking out paper, plastic, bottles and other recyclable waste that can be sold for a price. It is this vulnerable section of our society that is now under threat from the organised sector.

“People from the Ramky company came to our garbage dump and told us they have been contracted to collect waste here. So if we want to work here we have to pay them,” says Raju, a waste picker in his 20s. “They randomly set rates. At some places, they collect Rs 6,000, at some Rs 13,000 per month. They even tried to lock us out of the dhalaos (collection centres).”

Instead of a humane system that would incorporate or rehabilitate waste pickers, a clash of interests has been created. On one side, the five contracted companies — Delhi Waste Management (DWM), ABG Enviro, Metro Waste, Ramky and Delhi MSW Solutions — are looking to maximise profits by taking over the waste business, and on the other is the livelihood of 3.5 lakh waste pickers, already so precarious.

In fact, in violation of existing rules and laws (Delhi Sanitation Byelaws and Municipal Solid Waste Handling Rules, 2000), Delhi MSW Solutions has been given the right to collect waste door to door. This would not give any chance to the waste pickers or kabadiwallahs to extricate the recyclables.

Delhi has 40,000 children working as waste pickers. It’s the fourth largest ‘job option’ for kids

A survey by the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM) of waste in NDMC areas show the scale of this business. “Of the 330 tonnes of waste produced in the NDMC areas daily, 80 tonnes is recyclable,” says AIKMM Secretary Shashi Bhushan. “Though the rates vary, if we apply a flat rate of Rs 5 for every kg, 80 tonnes will generate a daily income of Rs 4 lakh, a monthly income of Rs 1.2 crore and a yearly income of Rs 14.45 crore. That is for just 3 percent of Delhi’s waste.” On the other hand, Ramky, which has been contracted for waste collection and transportation in NDMC areas, will only make an estimated Rs 4.6 crore annually. That is why they want to take over the entire business.

This is the story of your home, your garbage and the road it travels, the people it meets and the lives it changes.


DRESSED IN bright blue salwar kameez, she sat amidst the garbage. Her hands busy, her head unmoved, picking at the pile of plastic and paper. “There are times when I think it would be easier to end my life, but who will look after my kids?” she asks. At 42, Usha is a widow, a mother of seven and one of the city’s 3.5 lakh waste pickers. She migrated to Delhi at 16. Her alcoholic husband passed away in 2008, leaving her five daughters and two sons to look after.

For the fourth-generation waste picker, life is a daily struggle. Every day, from 6 am to 8.30 pm, Usha and her brother rummage through garbage at a collection centre in Connaught Place. By segregating and selling the recyclable waste, they jointly earn Rs 6,000 a month. “To be allowed to work here I have to pay Rs 500 each to the police and the NDMC and Rs 300 to the local daroga (supervisor) every month,” she says. “If my payments are late they harass me and ask me to clear out.”

Most of Delhi’s waste pickers earn Rs 150- Rs 250 a day. With families unable to survive on a single income, waste picking has become a family business.

Down in the dumps Waste-picker Usha

When asked about the private companies moving in, her answer is simple: “How can someone take away my right to a livelihood? How can anyone deny me my hard earned income? Four men from Ramky came here to force me out. I had no qualms in attacking them. Let them come again, I will smash their heads to the ground.”

Many groups working with kabadiwallahs have recommended that waste pickers be organised into a cooperative as waste segregation can only be done by hand.

“I was forced into this profession by circumstance,” says Usha. “I could wash dishes at someone’s house, but I would still be cleaning others’ waste. At least here I am my own boss. I have spent the past 26 years segregating garbage, I don’t want the same fate for my children.”

Down in the dumps MCD employee Ganesh Mandal

She looks at her 13-year-old son Hemant, who loves science and dreams of becoming a doctor. “When I ask him to sit by my side, he refuses, saying I stink,” she says. “This generation can’t be waste pickers. They have to have more.”


FOR A 12-year-old boy, living in the shadow of a hill could make for an ideal childhood filled with adventures. However, if the hill is a four-storey pile of garbage, adventures are substituted by risks and illness. Such is the life of Raju, who works at the Bhalaswa landfill in north Delhi.

The burden of loans forced Raju’s family to leave their home in Bengal and work as waste pickers in Delhi’s landfills. Raju is one of the 40,000 children involved in waste picking in Delhi. A study by the National Labour Institute found that waste picking is the fourth largest ‘job option’ for the city’s children.

Like Raju, most kids get involved due to their family’s plight. Education seems to be low on the list of priorities. “Why should the children study when they can work and earn money for their families?” asks a waste picker. The situation of the children is peculiar. Working at a landfill is not only hazardous to their health but also a violation of labour laws and the Right to Education Act. However, they will go hungry if they don’t work. And education for them is not a right, but a luxury.

Raju works at the landfill from 9 am to 1 pm, earning between Rs 60 and Rs 150 a day. He never wanted to come to Delhi and longs to go back to Bengal. While school is not an option, he hopes one day he will be able to study and fulfill his dream of becoming a motorcycle mechanic.

Ganesh Mandal

WHILE THE informal sector stands on the brink of unemployment, demanding recognition and registration by the government, Ganesh Mandal, 40, just wants what he was promised. He works for DWMin Govindpuri. Along with another man, he is responsible for ensuring that the waste that reaches his garbage bin is loaded onto the dumpsters owned by the company. As a teenager, he left West Bengal in search of a job and after multiple professions he signed on with DWM.

Mandal was never given a contract, he has no ID card, no benefits and no safety equipment

He and his colleague were promised Rs 1,500 each a month, medical benefits, working gloves and boots. However, he never got those and seldom gets his pay on time or even the full amount. He was never given his contract, has no identity card, no benefits, no safety equipment, only a promise that he will be paid eventually.

“What can I do with the Rs 900 I get?” asks Mandal. “I have to buy food, pay rent, electricity bills and send my child to school. How do I survive? All I know is that I will educate my child to the best of my abilities and hope that he can do better in life.”

Pradeep Kumar

THE 37-YEAR-OLD and his buggy are a common sight in Govindpuri. He has been a nonpermanent MCD employee for 16 years. Every morning, he hits the streets with his buffalo and cart, picking up piles of garbage. He shares a garbage bin with Ganesh Mandal and for his efforts the MCD is supposed to pay him Rs 5,850 a month.

“The buggywallas of Govindpuri have not been paid for six months,” says Kumar. “Our income may have stopped but there is no end to our expenditure. I spend close to Rs 4,400 on the upkeep of my buffalo every month, plus I have to send my three children to school, put food on the table, and run my household. How are we supposed to survive? Whenever we approach the local officials, they tell us they are looking into the matter.”

MCD officials, however, claim all sanitation workers are being paid regularly.

In order to increase productivity, the MCD has installed biometric scanners. Attendance is taken through fingerprints and buffaloes are tracked through GPS devices.

Down in the dumps DWM worker Pradeep Kumar

“They forcibly put the device (GPS tracker) into our buffalo. They said that those who don’t have it installed can’t work,” he says. “They took something that looked like a sawed-off shotgun, placed it in the buffalo’s mouth and fired. They told us the device would settle inside the animal, but of the 14 buffaloes that had this done, five have died. They never came to check our animals, the owners received no compensation for their animals’ deaths. The animal belongs to us, not the government. So when it dies we have to buy another buffalo, which costs Rs 30,000.

“I am lucky because my wife works as a sweeper in a school, so we are able to make ends meets. Others have been forced to take loans with interest rates of 10-20 percent. How they will pay them back I don’t know.”

While the safai karamcharis of Govindpuri suffer every day, the private tractor trolley hired by the local authorities to collect garbage gathers dust and rust outside a local park.

It seems bizarre that the government can spend Rs 1.5 lakh on a fingerprint scanner, Rs 40,000 on a GPS tracker and Rs 40,000 a month on an unused tractor but can’t give Kumar his wage of Rs 5,850.

Many MCD safai karamcharis have fallen into a debt trap. According to Sanjay Chhajjalan, a member of the Akhil Bhartiya Safai Mazdoor Congress, two karamcharis suffering from chronic depression committed suicide.

“There is something wrong with the way the MCD functions,” says Chhajjalan. “There are 19,000 non-permanent safai karamcharis in this city. They are registered on the government muster roll, but seven months ago, they were told that they are on contract. Who have they been contracted to? Nobody knows.”

The MCD’s response was evasive at its best. “It is a policy matter involving many related issues and is being looked into at the highest level,” said MCD Press and Information Director Deep Mathur.

Kumar and Chhajjalan feel that there is a caste bias in the MCD. “Almost all the safai karamcharis in Delhi are Dalits. According to the rules, a worker should be made permanent after 240 working days. In other departments like drainage, education and horticulture, the workers enrolled up to 2009 have been made permanent. However, only safai karamcharis up to 1995 enjoy that status.”

According to sources, there are an estimated 23,000 fake MCD safai karamcharis, who exist only on paper, but still manage to get attendance and collect a monthly salary. While the salary of a permanent employee is Rs 12,000, they are unable to claim their medical benefits and the interest from the LIC policy taken in their name.

“Lady Justice has her eyes covered so that she is unbiased, just, and can let truth prevail,” says Kumar. “But the blindfold is to ensure that she never knows the truth, that the people never know the truth. The day that blindfold comes off and the masses realise how they are being cheated, there will be hell to pay.”

Waste pickers are the tiny cogs in the wheel that sustains our city. Unseen, unheard, they keep our city clean, but are an exploited lot. Who will fight for their rights and make them stakeholders in an industry that had sustained them? “It is only those who have no other livelihood who turn to waste picking for a living,” says Bhushan. “We need to fight for them.”

Electrifying idea, but no one’s buying it

DELHI, FAST running out of landfills, wants to kill two birds with one stone by producing electricity from municipal waste. So the Jindal group has been allowed to set up a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant that will generate 16 MW by processing 1,950 tonnes of waste a day. Waste will be segregated, dried and burnt. A company executive suggests waste volume will be reduced by 90 percent and the ash residue (10 percent) will be used to make bricks.

The upcoming plant at Okhla is surrounded by Jamia Milia Islamia, three hospitals — Apollo, Holy Family and Fortis Escorts — and five residential colonies with roughly six lakh residents.

No magic plant Angry residents don’t want the WTE plant

Residents, concerned about air pollution, persuaded Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to set up an independent committee to look into alleged procedural irregularities and environmental clearances. However, Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit assured the residents that the plant was entirely safe.

The project’s MD Indresh Batra insists the technology is clean. “Plants all over the world are located within the community. We have used the best possible technology to lower emissions. How would we get clearances if we were to harm people? Our technology is as good if not better than those used abroad,” he says.

Environmentalists like Gopal Krishna are not convinced. “Since our waste in not segregated at source, it will be impossible to remove all the dioxin emitters as well as harmful components mixed in with the waste,” he says. “When the waste burns, the heavy metals, mercury and dioxin emitters will burn as well.”

There are 23,000 fake MCD safai karamcharis, who exist only on paper, but still get a salary

A Greenpeace report reveals that incinerator technology abroad has had a devastating affect on the local populace — municipal waste incinerators in UK resulted in a two-fold increase in cancer deaths in children living nearby, while residents living in an urban area near an incinerator in Italy suffered a 6.7-fold increase in deaths from lung cancer.

Apart from health risks, there is concern about the quality of Indian waste. Its calorific value is about 1,000 kcal/kg, although the ideal value is 2,500 kcal/kg. For this reason, the incinerator plants set up in Delhi’s Timarpur in 1987 shut down after a week, the Lucknow plant set up in 2003 closed after six months and the Hyderabad plant set up in 2003 runs below capacity. A company spokesman says the nature of Indian waste is changing. “Our plant is designed to work at a calorific value of 1,000 Kcal/kg and the samples collected in Delhi showed a value of 1,300,” he says.

Though the company maintains that “this is not a money making venture”, a PhD student from Spain, Federico Demaria, researching waste management across the globe calculated that the Timarpur-Okhla plant will earn close to Rs 54.8 cr in profit annually, by selling carbon credits and electricity. By that calculation the plant will cover its initial investment in three years.

As the rich get richer, it will be at the cost of the waste pickers and their families. Civil society groups believe if households segregate waste at source, the waste pickers could be organised into a cooperative to collect waste door to door and ensure that nonbiodegradable waste is properly recycled. Organic waste should be composted locally at a colony or block level. That would leave only the 20 percent inert waste to be transported to a landfill.

Avalok Langar is a Correspondent with Tehelka

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