Nov 15th 2007 | DELHI AND MUMBAI
From The Economist print edition
Disposing of rubbish, and wrecking livelihoods
TARA BAI, a ragpicker in Mumbai who was named after an Indian queen, shakes her head angrily when asked if she is disgusted by her job: picking through mounds of rotting refuse for sellable plastic and metal. “It’s not like that; it’s how I survive,” says the farmer’s daughter, who moved to the city in 1972, when drought ended her rural life. But opening a fresh sack of rubbish to reveal millions of squirming maggots, she turns away as if to stop herself gagging.
No one knows how many ragpickers there are in India. In Delhi alone, there are more than 300,000. They earn 100-150 rupees ($2.50-3.75) for eight hours’ work. They save the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) an estimated 600,000 rupees in daily waste-disposal costs, reckons Chintan, a charity that campaigns for their welfare.
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A small improvement came last month when Delhi’s government equipped 400 ragpickers with protective gloves and clothing. It is also giving them health-and-safety training and, if the scheme is successful, will repeat the exercise with another 4,000 scavengers. “It is to help them in their upliftment”, says Dr Sabata, an official at Delhi’s environment ministry. Almost all ragpickers are dalits, once known as untouchables.
Ragpickers suffer from dreadfully high levels of illness, especially respiratory diseases. But health is not, at present, the main concern of the groups that campaign for them. In recent months, ragpickers in Delhi have been denied access to much of the rubbish upon which they depend. In its drive to spruce up the capital for the 2010 Commonwealth games, the MCD has awarded waste-collection contracts to private companies in six of its 12 zones. These firms dump rubbish in inaccessible containers without any thought for recycling. This is unsurprising. They earn six rupees per tonne of collected rubbish; sold on, that refuse would fetch just over five rupees. Chintan has researched the impact in two zones, and has found that half the ragpickers reported a substantial drop in earnings.
In Mumbai, waste collection has not yet been privatised, but it might be soon. “The government wants Mumbai to be modern, clean,” says Jyoti Mhapsekar, president of Stree Mukti Sanghatana, a charity that works with the city’s poorest. “But it will take away the livelihoods of these people.” It will also, she adds, strip urban India of one of its few green credentials. Ragpickers, who leave no rubbish that is reusable, are the original recyclers; without them an impressive industry will be lost.