Making waste pickers’ lives better: An experience from Hyderabad

WHAT DO WASTE PICKERS NEED?

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Waste pickers at the Kattedan Industrial Estate, Hyderabad. Pic courtesy: Laxmi Vadapalli

Nagamma and Tirupataiah, a couple hailing from Kurnool district are waste pickers at the Kattedan Industrial Estate (KIE), near Rajendranagar in Hyderabad. Another waste picker, Shantamma took up this activity when she shifted to the area after her marriage. 

Spread across 110 hectares, the KIE houses 450 units belonging to manufacturing, oil refining, rewinding machines, food processing industries. The industries provide employment to 10,000 laborers, and the total population of the area is roughly 26000, most of them living in the neighbouring villages.

Industrial pollution — primarily high concentration of mineral oil and metals in the soil, dust, odour and smoke emission due to open dumping and burning of industrial wastes — has been a raging issue at the KIE and has led to contamination of groundwater and the degradation of Lake Noor Mohammad Kunta in the estate. 

To restore the lake and also provide alternative remunerative options for the waste pickers in the area, the Telangana State Pollution Control Board (TSPCB) undertook a project, under which it identified 41 families (comprised of 110 Project Affected Persons, or PAPs) dependent on waste picking in the KIE. This has led to some revealing insight about their realities and what they really want.

The lives of the marginalised

Nagamma and Shantamma represent the floating population of migrants who have shifted to Hyderabad and been into waste picking for more than a decade. While Shantamma earned about Rs 1000 per day during her initial days of ragpicking two decades ago, Nagamma and her husband say that they earn only Rs 500 to 600 per day today.

Nagamma and her husband own a house and five acres of land in their village, which they leased out to their relatives before shifting to Hyderabad. Falling agricultural productivity due to scarce rainfall, and the lure of better education for their children and improved standards of living for the family was at the root of their decision to migrate.

Both Nagamma and Shantamma eventually plan to go back to their native village, though they are not sure when that will happen. But they have not changed the address on their official documents such as their Aadhaar card, ration cards and Voter ID in view of those long term plans. This means they cannot access the benefits of any government schemes from Telangana, as their ID cards are from Andhra Pradesh. 

Shalini, one of Nagamma’s neighbours, is also engaged in the same occupation and both of them leave for work by 6 am, walking to KIE, which is roughly 3 km from their residence. The women generally prefer to move in groups of two to three, as it gives them better security against possible harassment by men en route to the industrial estate. 

Once they reach the Estate, they start picking up material of resale value from street corners, kirana shops and tiffin centres and two designated dumping sites in the estate till 1 PM. Then they start back towards their houses, where the collected waste would be segregated by the family members and sold to the scrap dealer.

Tirupataiah talks of the several health related issues they face, in the absence of any protective gear such as masks, gloves and shoes while handling the industrial waste. In the course of their day-to-day collection activity, they are exposed to chemicals, resulting in itching, burns, injury and in the long term, damage to internal and external organs. Some of his acquaintances have been affected by tuberculosis, cancer while others have fallen prey to substance abuse such as drugs, smoking, chewing tobacco and alcoholism. 

Compounding their misery is the discrimination they face because of their occupation, which speaks volumes about how the community perceives them as being inferior. When prodded further, one of the women in the community said,

‘Even if we wish to change our occupation, our immediate society is not receptive to the idea. If I wanted to shift from waste picking and work as domestic help, no one in the neighbourhood will employ me, because they know me as a waste picker. Moreover, many of the households in this area don’t employ domestic maids. Such opportunities are available only in areas that are far from where we live. It is difficult for us to travel to such far flung places early in the morning.’ 

Many of these families live in peripheral areas such as Rajendranagar, Uppuguda, Babanagar, Mailardevpalli among others, all of which are on the outskirts of Hyderabad. As such they have access to few remunerative occupations, for which they would have to travel to the city on a daily basis. 

Moreover, due to this social stigma, many of the women who were a part of the project mentioned above said that they had not disclosed their occupation to their own children. They come to the KIE once the children have left for school, collect recyclables between 11 am and 1 pm, deposit it with the scrap dealer and then return home before the children return from school.

Alternative livelihood options – a myth?

When asked, 28 out of 40 families chosen for the project said they were ready to move to alternative livelihood options. They were unable to specify any particular option, but were clear on one thing: that the alternative should be safer and more remunerative than rag picking.

Keeping this aspiration of the rag pickers in mind, the project team approached Yashoda Foundation, GMR Foundation and Nirmaan Foundation, NGOs associated with skill development, to explore the possibility of training for this community. The institutes provide training in AC repair, two/three-wheeler repair, JCB operations and repair for men, and computer training, jute bag making, beautician courses for women.

For all these trainings, however, the candidate was required to be between 18 and 35 years with basic reading and writing skills, so that they could comprehend the content of the training modules and take down notes.

As formal institutes could not accommodate the waste pickers, informal trainings at local institutes were arranged for – in tailoring, jute bag making etc based on the interests of the individuals. Though these exposure visits generated enthusiasm among the community to begin with, none of them completed the courses successfully.  

On the other hand, many of the waste pickers attempted to join the industrial workforce as unskilled daily wage labour in a couple of companies, through an employment contractor. But they left the job after a short span of 5 to 6 months as they felt constrained by the rigid hierarchy in these organizations. In waste picking, they operate independently on their own, and they were not comfortable giving up that freedom in a formal job with a superior to report to and an office schedule to follow.

Takeaways

This experiment has led us to an important conclusion: Policy makers need to adopt a two-pronged strategy to ensure livelihood security for these waste pickers. In the short term, instead of trying to shift them to other options by default, there is a need to push for safer ways of SWM and waste collection at source. Waste pickers should be provided with all social security measures provided by the government aimed for BPL families.

For this, NGOs working with the community in other cities could be identified (for example, HasiruDala from Bangalore) and engaged to see how benefits – like pension, health care facilities, education for their children at par with that of the formal workforce – may be ensured.

For those who do wish to take up alternative occupations – as driver, watchman, or factory workers, or in the skill development sector – there is a need to relax the rules and guidelines for training programs. In skills development, the age stipulation for trainees puts the upper limit at 35 years. Many a time, the ones who really need support, both men and women above 40 years, are excluded.

There is a need to identify appropriate intervention to take care of this group. The policy makers need to recognize this gap and design appropriate inclusive strategies to ensure livelihood security and dignity for all.

About Laxmi Vadapalli 1 Article
Dr Laxmi Vadapalli is a trained sociologist with a PhD from the University of Hyderabad. She has professional experience of over 17 years in the development sector, and has had a 2.5 year stint with TISS, Mumbai. She has vast experience in issues pertaining to Resettlement and Rehabilitation in mining and irrigation sectors in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.