Unsung soldiers

As the Swachch Bharat mission enters its fifth year on October 2, a salute to the army of ragpickers who work tirelessly to keep the city clean and segregate waste to fuel the informal recycling industry. Surprisingly, they have no government support

Meet Ram Mugra, 42 years of age, who has been ragpicking since he was 15, in and around India Gate. He works for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, collecting some 50 kg of waste from a relatively cleaner part of the city, Lutyens’ Delhi. He carries the junk to his home in Kotla, where he segregates it methodologically — plastic, paper, metal scraps, leather items. All these are recyclable and go to dealers.

On a good day, Mugra ends up making about Rs 500 from this backbreaking work. “It’s dirty work. Somebody has to do the dirty work,” he says in Hindi, reaffirming that he has no support from government agencies. On the contrary, he is hassled by local government staff as they have an obstructionist attitude.

“The municipal workers are well equipped. They get a salary. But they work for, at most, an hour a day, while we work for half a day. We keep the city clean,” he says with certain conviction. His family lives in his hometown of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, as he can’t afford to bring them to Delhi.

Then there is Mohammad Hussain, who looks much older than his 45 years. He and his wife Naseeman pick waste in the Shastri Park area. The two together on an average make about Rs 500 a day. They have seven children and life is difficult — they live in shanties by the roadside in absolute squalor. Their life depends on what they collect. Sometimes they end up collecting more than 100 kg of waste, and there’s nothing much to recycle after segregation. But on a good day they end up making a thousand bucks.

There are thousands of people like Hussain and Mugra whose life critically depends on the waste we create. They make a living out of trash. Though nobody thanks them for their contribution, they play a critical role in keeping the city clean.

Mahatma Gandhi had famously said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” One of the flagship programme of the Narendra Modi government is the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which will enter its fifth and last year on October 2 —Gandhi Jayanti. It’s described as the “largest behaviour change campaign ever attempted in the field of sanitation in the world.” The goal is to ensure complete open defecation free (ODF) habitations along with improving solid waste disposal management systems, both in the rural and urban areas, all over the country. The two nodal agencies at work are the ministries of Drinking Water and Sanitation and that of Housing and Urban Affairs. In the last four years, the government has spent Rs 56,000 crore of which nearly 90% has been allocated to rural areas.

This ambitious plan has the potential to make India a clean country. But there’s still a long way to go before SBM realises its goals. As per government figures, India produces approximately 62 million tonne of waste yearly and most of it is untreated, nearly 70%. There is no culture of waste segregation, making it even more difficult.

The capital city has seen a lot of visible changes in the last few years. Many of the homeless people residing under the flyovers and around the traffic signals have been cleared. These spots have now been fenced and beautiful gardens have replaced shacks where homeless lived. The road dividers and pavements are being re-laid, new trees have been planted. Senior officials in the ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs are not happy, though. They say the cleanliness drive is often executed as a beautification project. The idea is not to find solutions to get rid of the squalor but just to hide it.

Places where the dirt is hidden are localities on the periphery of the city, banks of the Yamuna; and of course the Ghazipur landfill site is an ecological disaster in the making. There’s pressure to be seen performing rather than perform. It results in quick fix-solutions, but they aren’t solutions, just deferment of the problem.

Having said that, Delhi is a lucky city. It has an organic waste disposal system and a flourishing recycling industry without any contribution, support or help of the government agencies. The real hero of the SBM are the ragpickers, who work tirelessly, day in and out, all days of the week, gather waste and segregate it and provide ready supply of inputs to the recycling industry. And they do it silently with no government support and despite having to face the ire of the police and municipal workers. Further, they have no protective clothing or gloves, lead a hazardous life to keep the city clean, while existing in most abysmal conditions themselves.

“India’s growing waste woes cannot be sorted without the involvement of ragpickers,” says Bharati Chaturvedi, Director of Chintan — a Delhi-based NGO that’s working tenaciously for environmental justice in partnership with people and diverse groups like rag pickers and recyclers. She adds, “The tragic part is that they stay in the most pathetic conditions despite they being the essential part of India’s waste management chain.”

“Why can’t we put ourselves in their shoes for an hour and see for ourselves how useful it is for them when we segregate our waste? Why don’t we help them by giving segregated waste – it is our duty and once we realise this, we will be able to make India clean,” says Chaturvedi. She is of the view that the first step is to reduce the amount of waste we produce. Second, it’s imperative to understand the importance of waste segregation and we should look at ragpickers and waste traders more respectfully.

Charity begins at home, so does waste management.

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