• October 1, 2020 1:11 am

Reporting From Delhi

Hazardous work, no hazmat suits

BySashikala VP

Jul 10, 2020

There is no protection against Covid-19 infection for those who take the garbage from our doorsteps or those who segregate it to find saleable junk. This, in a city which has a raging pandemic with increasing number of cluster cases

Every morning, Sunil would ring doorbells of one section of a DDA apartment in Dwarka. Tasked to take the garbage from homes every single day, his work would go on till afternoon — until he left with his co-workers, segregating waste, picking out what could be recycled.

Since the lockdown began on 25 March in India, Delhi being no exception, it was deemed safe by the RWA to have the garbage collectors wait in the area between two apartment blocks and have residents come down and give their waste away. So the daily routine had now switched from the sound of a doorbell to Sunil blowing a whistle, letting people know he had arrived. A surgical mask was his shield.

This practice stopped when Unlock phase 1 began; shops, restaurants, malls were deemed okay to open. Buses and cabs had already been okayed to ply, with restrictions on the number of passengers. Offices were now allowed to bring in their workforce, and Sunil and the others like him put down their whistles and settled back to ringing doorbells.

But then a few days later, emerged a positive case of a doctor treating Covid-19 patients — a couple of blocks away. Days later, three more cases, their origin of disease unknown. Sunil and others had again been told to bring their whistles back. Now though his mask falls off his face sometimes, he rides away with his cart of rubbish, to sort it out without any protection to his hands, forget being provided with PPE kits.

Chintan, an environmental action group, says there are 50,000 waste pickers in Delhi. They have handled the waste coming out of homes before, and every day risked their lives and their families, wading into garbage without any sanitary provisions.

A survey co-researched by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, the Delhi environment department and German NGO GIZ report in September 2017, called ‘Making Delhi Swachh: Participatory Solid Waste Management Policy for Delhi’ found that of the total garbage generated in the city, after sending 4,500 tonne to waste-to-energy plant for incineration and 850 metric tonne for composting, at least 3,800 tonne made its way to the city’s already saturated dump sites in Narela-Bawana, Bhalaswa, Okhla and Ghazipur.

In another research study ‘Waste segregation at source is the key in municipal solid waste management in Delhi’, available on ResearchGate, the researchers pointed out that the solid waste management rule 2016 put the responsibility of generators to segregate waste into the three categories – wet, dry and hazardous. They point to the lack of awareness, loosely implementation of laws and various other reasons are obstacles in achieving appropriate results.

ESSENTIAL WORKER: Kasam Ali has been picking up waste from Ghazipur slums for the past 10 years

“Solid waste management should be sustainable ecologically as well as economically. In a developing country like India, it’s very important to have a cost-effective solid management plan. We have to deal with poverty, population growth and high urbanisation rate combined with ineffective and under-funded solid waste management techniques,” it said.

But the inefficient ways continue. People like Sunil and countless others have to wade into waste. Take the Ghazipur landfill where the mounds of garbage keep rising. While it spreads across 70 acres, it stands 65 metres tall, more than double the permissible limit of 25 metres, yet it goes on.

We spoke with Kasim Ali, who collects waste from slums in Ghazipur, himself living in Ghazipur dairy farm. Since the pandemic began, there have been restrictions on entering the dump site, he says, but he and at least 70 others find a way to go in. “An accident happened so we are not allowed to go in but we are helpless. We need to make money”.

Ali has been collecting waste, segregating it and then dumping for the past 10 years. He is 64 years old, but cannot stop just yet. His family of five need him to work as everyone of them has been adversely affected by this pandemic, losing their menial jobs. His elder son too works as a door-to-door waste collector.

But Ali is home sick today, he thinks because of the heat. “I haven’t gone in the past 2-3 days, my stomach is not good.” His earnings had already depleted. While before the pandemic he earned Rs 300-400 a day by collecting and recycling waste, now he barely manages to make Rs 100.

People like Sunil get a monthly sum from residential areas they service, the earnings divided between co-workers. But Ali and his ilk have no income security.

What they do have in common is the ever-present threat of a virus. Ali tells us that safety standards are the same as before the pandemic. This, despite the fact that he is part of Safai Sena, a registered group of waste pickers, doorstep waste collectors, itinerant, and other small buyers of junk, dealers and recyclers. “We don’t get any masks or gloves. Everyone is just working as before. No one has approached us, not to give any provisions for our protection nor to test us for the virus”.

There is a real danger present to waste collectors of contracting the disease from homes with an undetected virus, of passing it on to their family members, their colleagues and back to residents who require their services. The virus is still very much alive in Delhi, with cases having increased to a total of 1,04,864. The total new cases as of 9 June stood at 2,033, with the death toll at 3,213, while 78,199 have been cured of the disease.

(Cover: Waste collectors are an essential service that the city and its people require. But inadequately equipping them even during a pandemic is a serious problem // PHOTO: Getty images)