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The Waste Picker

Delhi generates 4000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, consisting of about compostable matter, paper, plastics and metals. The waste pickers who collect recyclable materials, number over 3 lakhs and are a large section of Dehi's informal labour population; and live in sub-standard living conditions.

Salman is a chirpy 13 year old, full of life, who lives in a slum near Shahbad dairy. He dreams of going to a school one day, but circumstances may never permit him to fulfill his dream. Every morning at six o'clock he goes to collect waste from Sector 18, Rohini and helps his uncles and aunts in the process of collecting, segregating and selling recyclable waste. His father is an alcoholic whom his mother abandoned. He now lives with his maternal grandparents along with his mother, three younger brothers and numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. His grandfather Oiinul Kazi who is 60-year old who migrated to Delhi from Birbhoom district of West Bengal 35 years back, looking for work opportunities. He has lived in the slum at Shahbad dairy for the past fifteen years and earned a living by picking waste. Everyone in the family contributes, including children, because every set of hands means a little more money for the family. Salman is one among the thousands of children working as waste pickers in Delhi.

Waste pickers, scavengers or rag pickers make a living by collecting waste and selling recyclable materials out of it. They constitute a population of over 3 lakhs and are a large section of informal labour of Delhi. They belong to the bottom rung of working population, and live in sub standard and inhuman conditions. Unhygienic working conditions take a toll on their health. Without hazard-protection equipment such as masks, gloves or boots, they rummage through putrefying waste, come in direct contact with toxic material and acquire respiratory and gastro-intestinal infections.

Moreover, waste pickers face harassment on a daily basis from police men, municipal authorities and private contractors. The move by the Delhi government to privatize waste picking and set up (proposed) waste-to-energy incinerators in the Delhi has threatened their livelihood without giving them alternative means of livelihood. A study conducted by the National Labour Institute (NLI) in 1997-98 found waste picking to be the fourth largest occupation for street children in Delhi. Most children start picking waste as a family occupation and help their parents collect, segregate and sell waste. As mentioned, toxic working conditions expose them to various kinds of diseases and affect their physical and mental growth. The majority of these children have either dropped out of or have never been to a school. Without opportunities of acquiring other professional skills, they get trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness.

On the average, Delhi generates 4000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, of which about 32% is compostable matter. Recyclable components include paper 6.6%, plastics 1.5% and metals 2.5%. The primary responsibility of solid waste management rests with several public sector agencies. However, waste pickers, waste dealers, recyclers and recycling unit workers play a significant role in the overall scheme of things.

Waste picking is not an officially recognized profession, and hence waste pickers are not entitled to any benefits or social security. Even though they play a significant role in the process of waste disposal, issues related to their health and livelihood remain un-addressed. Raising public awareness about the social and environmental aspects of waste management is a pre-condition for better living conditions and basic rights for waste pickers, whose jobs deserve government recognition, regulation and the protection of appropriate labour laws. Instead of promoting waste policies solely with an eye to energy sources, the recycling of waste and and the placement of subsidies on recycled goods should also be considered as options. This will help safeguard the livelihood of waste pickers.