The Alienated Rag Picking Lot That Is Vital To India’s Cleanliness
“Mujibur Rahman. My name is easy to remember. The President of Bangladesh had the same name.” With a smile, he resumed probing into the garbage in search of discarded soft drink cans.
A stench that could make the toughest cringe, no longer seems to exist for Rahman, for, in this filth has he spent his youth and, in it, would he age. Like many others who dream of making it big, he had migrated to the national capital for opportunities. Little did he know that his life would be condemned to dirt. But,
Mujibur is a proud man. “No work is bad work,” he says. That he rummages through garbage for his livelihood and does not steal, however poor he might be, makes him see dignity in the job. Similar is the story of Mujibur’s friends and thousands of others, who play a critical role in cleaning 62 million metric tons of trash generated every year in India.
Waste management sector is highly unorganized in our country. In the absence of a proper framework, these unsung heroes sift through our filth on a daily basis. From door-to-door collection of garbage to segregating the recyclables and trading them, they indirectly ensure that waste is disposed of effectively. Don’t Miss Celebration Much? Video Shows Indian Square In New Jersey Littered After Diwali & It’s Shameful 1.8 K SHARES
In the process, they clean those nooks and crannies usually not attended to by the Municipal Corporation. Former environment minister Prakash Javadekar had hinted that waste generated annually in India would reach to enormous amounts of “165 million tons by 2030 and 450 million tons by 2050”. In such a scenario, the role of ragpickers would become all the more important.
As per the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (All India Ragpickers Union, AIKMM), 40 lakh ragpickers live in India and five lakhs in Delhi alone. Seemapuri in Delhi, is one such locality that is teeming with ragpickers on all days of the year.
On the sides of the road and at every other corner, they could be seen sitting on huge mounds of waste, engaged in a seemingly never-ending task of waste segregation. In the little breaks, they sit on heaps of garbage, munching biscuits and sipping on tea. Though they play an indispensable role in our lives, they are often looked down upon as scavengers and alienated from the mainstream society.
Most of them hail from the lowest rung of India’s highly fragmented social setup. They belong to the Dalit or ‘untouchable’ community. This often makes them a victim of discrimination. To add to it, is the contaminated environment where they spend eight to ten hours a day. They lack the basic rights to safety gears and health benefits. Gloves and masks remain a luxury they cannot afford. They are often denied fair remuneration for their work.
Most of the time, this happens due to the presence of middlemen who trick them by paying less than the stipulated amount. On an average, they make 300 rupees every day. ‘What will we save for bad times! We don’t even have enough to feed ourselves,’ said Kohinoor, a widow who lives alone after being abandoned by her son. She is afraid of the impending old age and chokes up recounting the struggles of life.
While an aura of apathy seems to surround Kohinoor, she is prompt in wishing good to those she meets. The children of these ragpickers are often handed down the family legacy of filth. Most of them resort to drugs and in turn, to thefts and robberies to fund their dependence on narcotics.
In the absence of education and guidance, they end up becoming wasted potential. They continue to languish in abject poverty and debilitating conditions and are often ignored by policy makers. Unequivocal about their resentment against the authority, they say, “Government does nothing for us, no matter which party. They win with our votes and every time we go to them, they ask us to come back later.”
More than 90 percent of India lacks proper waste disposal mechanism. Given the sad reality of waste disposal in our country, the ragpickers step in to streamline the entire process. It is high time that government takes steps to incorporate this vital section of workers into the main framework of waste management.
This would ensure fair pay and also induce them to safety gears and health benefits. It is not only inhuman to have to touch the sanitary waste barehanded and inhale the poisonous gases emitted by electronic refuse, the absence of safety measures leaves them susceptible to some lethal diseases.
Mohammad Safiq, who had gotten into rag picking when he was 13 years old, says, “I had left behind my village in Bihar and come in search of a government job but ended up in trash.
I was a young- and good-looking boy when I came to Delhi. Look what has become of me now!” Though Safiq has been into the business for almost three decades and earns a decent living, the feeling that destiny has played foul with his aspirations, keeps coming back to haunt him.
As for Mujibur, despite the optimism and respect he might have for his work, he feels that his life is an untold saga of exploitation. Mujibur sees his respite in the future of his children. He dreams that his children would make better lives for themselves and with it would end his misery.
“Afterall I have taken pains to give them a better life. One day when they have good jobs, they should take me away from this filth. I want people to remember me as a ragpicker whose children became officers,” he says. Some, like Mujibur, live with the belief that they would see better days, whereas many have no such hopes to cling to. In their heart of hearts, they have resigned to their fate. They know that they would live and die a ragpicker.
The author is is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She covers minority affairs, development issues and lifestyle.