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They sift through piles of trash for a pittance

Twelve-year-old Vikram Kumar cannot recall a day when he didn’t have to visit a huge pile of trash to procure recyclable material such as metals, plastic and glass. All this to earn a little more than $7 (Dh26) a day.

However, even this miserable existence is under threat with the Indian Government’s initiative to burn the waste to generate energy. The initiative will help the administration to earn carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, a global pact designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In India, typically waste is collected and just dumped into landfills usually located a little outside the main city. Ragpickers visit these landfills to fetch recyclable materials, which they sell to “kabaadiwallah” (scrap dealers) to earn a living. Sometimes these ragpickers are as young as eight-year-old and have to work in stinking, unhygienic and hazardous waste piles.

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`Nearly 30 per cent of the waste is recyclable, 50 per cent is wet waste and the rest inert. The recyclable material is segregated into many categories.

“This segregated waste is the primary source of livelihood for ragpickers. The wet waste is transported to landfill sites in and around the city. Needless to say, ragpickers’ work benefits the environment,” says Shanti Bhushan Pandit, general secretary, All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM) in the recent letter to Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Ragpickers are at the lowest end of the waste management hierarchy and it is only recently that the authorities have started to see their efforts as environment friendly. The government recently announced a national award, with a cash prize of Rs150,000 (Dh8,510) to be given to three best ragpickers in the country.

“If the government goes ahead with its plan to give all the waste to the plant, I will have little option but to start begging. It is indeed dirty work and is not respected but I have done this my entire life. Sometimes we are treated as trash but it keeps the fire in our home burning,” says 26-year-old Jagdish. He goes to the Ghazipur landfill in Delhi to collect trash. His family of three younger siblings also segregates waste for a living.

Ragpickers work in horribly unhygienic, and sometimes, dangerous circumstances. It is common for them to handle medical and electronic waste with bare hands, which can potentially be life threatening. Many a time, they injure themselves while handling broken glass.

There have been efforts in the past to formally include them in the waste management system but the sheer number of waste workers means that these efforts are akin to just a few drops in the ocean.

India has a staggering 3.2 million waste workers. Most of them are from the extremely marginalised section of the society and are forced to work as ragpickers only because they are unable to find any alternative means of livelihood.

Waste management is an informal sector in India and it is only now that the government is making an effort to formalise the process. It has recently come out with draft rules on solid waste management. “The objective is to give thrust to waste minimisation, source segregation, recycling and mainstreaming waste pickers, recyclers and waste processors in collection of segregated waste from various sources of its generation,” says the website of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. It is according to these draft rules that the government is planning to set up incinerators, which threatens the livelihood of the waste workers.

However, the government’s decision to go for waste-to-energy initiative has jeopardised even this existence. While experts differ on the scale of impact of incinerators, there is little doubt that it will threaten their livelihood and might push them further down in the hierarchy.

A section of the society believes that waste-to-energy is a positive move by the government since it is likely to benefit the environment. The waste pickers however, contest this.

“It will impact the livelihood of nearly 3.2 million ragpickers in the country. More importantly, we are convinced that setting up incinerators is not the right way of tackling waste,” says Pandit.

Pandit claims that most of the waste produced in India is wet waste and thus not suitable for incineration. Other experts also corroborate this. “We are just trying to ape the West when it is clear that it’s not going to work for us. Most of the waste generated in India is wet waste, while the waste-to-energy plant requires dry waste,” says Chitra Mukherjee, manager, Outreach and Advocacy at Chintan, an NGO working for the uplift of waste workers in the capital. They claim to be involved in every step of waste management system. The organisation not only trains the waste workers how to skilfully handle the waste but also makes them aware of their rights.

A key argument against waste-to-energy plant is the failure of Okhla incinerator, which had to be closed down within three years of starting. The plant was processing nearly 1,950 metric tonnes of waste to generate just 16MW of power.

“The power generated is negligible and the cost of setting up of a plant is huge. The government should think whether it makes sense to set up these plants when other sustainable options are available,” says Mukherjee.

Waste pickers allege that the government wants to go ahead with the controversial plan even when there is strong evidence that it is likely to fail.

However the other side of the picture is that India’s ever-increasing population and urban boom has created a huge problem of waste management. Urban India generates over 70 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. Expanding cities have literally brought landfills within the cities, which means that the residents of areas close to landfills suffer a number of health issues. Besides, when real estate prices are skyrocketing, precious land is being used as landfill.

Further, the waste workers need to be provided an alternative and a dignified means of livelihood. It is imperative that waste is managed in a sustainable manner to reduce pollution and to ensure participation of waste workers.

Indian waste pickers are demanding inclusion in the formal waste management system. They insist that ragpickers be allowed to access dry waste through doorstep collection.

Waste pickers argue that they are already providing a solution to one part of the waste chain and only non-reclyclable waste should be considered for any other use or technological solutions.

“The ragpicker’s customary usage right to collect and segregate waste must now be identified and recognised as a legal right, thus formalising the established informal system. It should either transition into formal employment or their informal business should be recognised and transformed into formal business entity,” says Pandit.

“We demand that exclusive rights for door-to-door collection of waste be assigned to informal waste workers and that the new rules recognise and approve their unconditional access and priority over dry recyclable waste,” he adds.

There have been experiments where ragpickers have been included in the formal waste management system. A case in point is Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), which has authorised a cooperative of waste pickers to collect waste directly from resident’s doorsteps. Waste pickers’ union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) front-ends collection in the city, enabling them to work with dignity. The members collect both dry and wet waste, which is then deposited at designated spots of the PMC. Waste pickers sort the waste and the wet waste is processed for composting or to generate biogas.

The sustainable model can potentially revolutionise how urban waste is managed in India. This also makes it easier for them to sort waste instead of working in a pile of trash every day. This decentralised waste management system has emerged as a model for waste disposal and inclusion of waste pickers.

In the end it can be said that the India’s waste management system is in a state of transition, which suggests that the time is right to make the model more sustainable and inclusive, which will benefit all segments of the waste management system.

Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India. You can follow her on Twitter @Gagandeepjourno

@gagandeepjourno

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