Take a drive from Dehradun’s iconic Forest Research Institute (FRI) towards the city centre, the Clock Tower, and you will observe a clogged, toxic and dead Bindal river. Much of the uncollected waste from the city finds its way here. Next to the river are almost 30,000 slum dwellings harbouring a population of 1.25 lakh people. It is also a home to around 100 to 150 waste picker families. Apart from Bindal, large numbers of waste picker families live in the slums of Kanwali, Lakkhibagh, Premnagar and Kargi.
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Enter Bindal slum and one can see many homeless children carrying waste in large sacks. Though many of them are officially enrolled in nearby government schools, they work alongside their parents in collection, segregation and bundling of waste. Living in a highly unhygienic and polluted environment, these slum dwellers are engaged in different modes of waste collection in the city. Some pickers collect waste from open community bins, some go door to door, while others do it from public places like the interstate bus terminus, railway station, malls and multiplexes.
Uttarakhand’s capital makes a classic case study of how this informal waste industry works and the sorry plight of the waste pickers who earn their livelihood from it. The city currently generates an average of 300 tonnes of waste every day. Of this, 250 tonnes goes to the city’s controversial Shishambada Waste Management Plant, which has been opposed by residents. Located 30 kms from the city, it is operated by Ramky Enviro Engineers Limited, for processing. Currently, it produces two outputs from the waste—one, Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), which is piling up in the plant as Ramky is unable to sell it and two, compost, which is of poor quality.
The remaining 50 tonnes of waste remains uncollected and ends up anywhere and everywhere — on roads, in streams or in community bins. In fact, the city is also struggling with door to door waste collection. And it is from the waste dumped on the streets and bins that Bindal’s waste pickers make a living.
The waste chain
Ram Nath is a waste picker living and working in Bindal for the last 12 years. A migrant from Bihar, Ram Nath, in his late 40s, has a wife and two sons. Both sons study at a nearby government school and on weekends, help their father in collecting, sorting out and packaging of waste. “My duty starts at 6 in the evening and goes on till 2 in the night,” says Ram Nath, as his wife sits nearby sorting out the waste. “We go around in teams on our rickshaws collecting waste from different dumps and public places.”
“Almost 150 waste pickers stay here and we all collect different items from the streets,” adds Ram Nath. “We send all of it to the big traders in the city, who further supply it to companies or maybe to other bigger waste businesses based in Meerut, Saharanpur, Delhi and other places in UP”. Cardboard, steel items, aluminium cans, copper wires, polybags, PET bottles, wine bottles, name it and you will find it in Ram Nath’s collection. All of it neatly stacked and ready to be loaded in trucks.
“We sell the PET bottles to a city-based trader for Rs 20 to 22 a kg, while the glass bottles (beer, wine) are sold at Rispana Pul for around Rs15 rupees. For other materials, the suppliers visit us when they require it… We earn around Rs. 200 to 250 a day”. This amount is about 20 percent less than the current minimum wage of Rs 8331 per month prescribed by the state government for unskilled labour involved in any type of registered industry.
One of Ram Nath’s regular clients is Nafees (in his mid-30s), a Dehradun-based trader of metal-based articles like aluminium cans, copper wires, steel items and e-waste like batteries. “I have been in this business for more than 20 years now and have been sourcing different metal waste from waste pickers of Bindal,” says Nafees. “Ram Nath is my most trusted and oldest source handler. My job is simply to take material from them and forward it to traders based in Saharanpur, Shamli and Meerut”.
Nafees says there are hundreds of city-based traders for every kind of waste. These suppliers forward waste to big businesses based in NCR who in turn supply to companies or recyclers. Much of the recyclable waste is sent out of the state, because the law prohibits the setting up of any type of recycling plants within Doon Valley in order to control pollution.
Unsafe working conditions
Despite their crucial work, efforts to improve the living conditions of waste pickers has been minimal and they continue to live in unsafe conditions, and use manually operated vehicles working without gloves or masks. Most of them are migrants from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh and get no assistance from the Dehradun Municipal Corporation.
Recently, the UNDP in association with Waste Warriors, a city-based NGO working on creating awareness regarding waste management, launched a drive to provide all waste pickers with ID card and clothes. Waste Warriors also did an in-depth survey on the waste pickers, and this report will be out in July.
“The ID cards have helped us in avoiding harassment by the police,” says Ram Nath. But he is worried about the quality of the ID card. “During rains, every detail written in ink will be washed away. We can’t stop our work because of rains. We need water resistant ID cards. Otherwise, they are of no use.” Not surprisingly, most waste pickers do not carry it.
What lies ahead
With increasing urbanisation and mounting waste crisis, the role of waste pickers will become more crucial. Waste management laws (Solid Waste Management and Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016) also talk about integrating the role of waste pickers into the mainstream.
Despite the success stories like Hasiru Dala Innovation in Bengaluru and SWaCH Cooperative Society in Pune now being discussed globally, a collaborative and assistive framework for the upliftment of waste pickers remains absent at the national and regional level.
In fact, studies have shown the immense potential of the informal waste sector in India. The country as a whole generates about 62 million tonnes of waste (including both recyclable and non-recyclable waste) a year. In 2017-18, India generated a whopping 660 thousand tons of plastic waste alone. It is also estimated that total waste generated will rise to 165 million tonnes by 2030 and 450 million tonnes by 2050. And a significant portion of this waste will continue to be handled by the informal waste sector, creating a huge potential for a model based on circular economy and environmental sustainability. But this aspect has been largely ignored and excluded from the mainstream. As are the waste pickers who form an integral part of the informal waste industry and number about 1.5 million, according to Chintan, a Delhi based environmental research and action group on waste management.
Figures given out by Sujeet Samaddar, a consultant with a Niti Aayog team working on India’s draft Material Recycling Policy show that this informal industry, if integrated into the mainstream economy, can generate three million direct jobs, 12 to 15 million indirect jobs and Rs. 700 million worth of materials.
One possible way forward is for Niti Aayog, in coordination with state planning departments, to formulate a roadmap through which a phase-wise integration process of these waste pickers can be initiated. The National Green Tribunal or the state high courts can set up independent monitoring committees to submit timely reviews of the condition of waste pickers in their state. This will help in the creation of a robust periodical data bank which can help in identification and launch of targeted community interventions. State Child Protection and Rights Committees along with Women’s Committees can also take it up as their mandate to identify vulnerable targets and assist them with adequate social, economic and legal empowerment.
At an individual level, it’s important to empathise with the community of waste pickers. Spread the word about their good work and positive impact. Helping child waste pickers to attain formal education or move on to a better social learning environment can be another major contribution that we, as responsible citizens, can undertake.