In Photos: Delhi's Waste Pickers Reel Under Double Whammy of Pandemic, Privatisation

Due to misguided policies of state and Union governments, livelihoods of nearly 3.5 lakh waste pickers in Delhi have been badly affected.

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Till late March last year, Saddam had a simple routine he adhered to every single day. He would wake up early, wash up, offer his prayers, loiter around for a cup of tea before hurriedly getting ready for work. Every day he would take his cycle-cart, ride it to the societies and residential blocks in Dilshad Garden in Delhi, go door to door and collect household waste. It wasn’t an ideal life but where he came from it was more or less normal. When the ‘janta curfew’ was declared, Saddam kicked back and took it easy. It was a day off, most of which he spent playing cards with friends.

For 18 of the 26 years of his life, Saddam had worked in waste, inheriting the profession from his family that migrated to Delhi in the 80s from Haldia in West Bengal. “This is all I know how to do,” he says, pushing his well-cut hair off his face, before pausing to add, “But I was learning to drive.” It was tough, because he didn’t have a licence and the only car he could use was commandeered by a friend twice removed, who drove a taxi. He was also saving money to buy a new phone.

Then one day — March 24, 2020 to be precise — the prime minister declared a national lockdown. India followed the rest of the world and decided to stay indoors, which in itself would have been fine. Unfortunately, the ad-hoc nature of the lockdown meant that many workers whose work demanded they be outdoors weren’t accounted for. The world took a deep breath and paused. The buildings and houses Saddam collected waste from upgraded their Internet speeds and downloaded Zoom.

Also read: Down in the Dumps: The Tale of Delhi’s Waste Pickers

Asked if there had been COVID-19 cases in his neighbourhood, and if the fear of contracting it overshadowed all else in their lives, he smiles and says, “Nahi hua yahaan kisi ko bhi. Humse thode na log haat milate hain (None of us had Covid. No one shakes hands with us).” Their troubles are more to do with economics. Saddam lost his livelihood.

Zubeida, 32 (left), says that during the lockdowns they were not allowed to go to societies and housing localities to do their work by the police, who would restrict their movement regardless of the correct permits. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

Hum kabaad uthane nikalte the, toh police marta tha aur bhaga deta tha. Permit maangta tha, ID maangta tha. Humare paas toh ration card bhi nahi hai, kya ID denge… (when we used to go collect waste (during the lockdown), the police would beat us and drive us away. They asked us for permit and ID. We don’t even have ration cards, what ID can we give…).”

Sakina nods in support as Saddam rages on. “This happened to everyone here,” she adds. “Look around you, yahan pe sab log yahi kaam karte hai. Pareshaani bohot hui (Here everyone does the same work. We have a lot of problems).”

Sakina, 20, started working as a waste picker when she was 14, collecting door to door in colonies nearby, but has seen her work take a huge hit during the pandemic. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

Twenty years old, Sakina studied till Class IX at the ‘Bank wala school(Sarvodaya Kanya Bal Balika Vidyalaya, assigned a new moniker because of its proximity to a State Bank of India branch). Her family needed more hands-on-deck and as the oldest of five children she was the first to get into the waste business.

“There was no kamaai-dhanda, nobody was buying kabaadi, khana pani bhi bohot dikkat se chal raha tha,” she says, before hastening to add, “abhi bhi dikkat se chal raha hai… abhi phir bhi chal raha hai. Pehle toh poora hi bandh ho gaya tha (There was no income. No one was buying waste we could manage our meals with great difficulty. Even now it is difficult, but it is still better.)”

In the throes of a livelihood and sustenance crisis magnified because of the pandemic, most families in the area (Dilshad colony) relied on aid. Government rations were only available to the select few with cards. Some housing societies in the area pooled together to help but for the most part, they relied on one of their own.

Bhai ne bohot madad kiya tha,” Sakina says, pointing towards the gate of a mosque across the road,abhi bhi kar rahe hain (Bhai helped us a lot. He still does).”

Police harassment and Muslim identity     

Within the premises of the Masjid Ya Rasoolallah in Dilshad Garden is a park. The call for zuhr prayers has rung out and people start trickling towards the mosque. On a bench in the park sits Sheikh Akbar Ali; the ‘bhai’ Sakina referred to as having helped with aid holds court.

Sheikh Akbar Ali. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

“This is just another crisis for our community,” he says. “And like all the others we have had in the past, this one too will build up and accumulate, till someone does something. When I started working, the real problem was different…”

Akbar started handling waste in the early 2000s. Late one evening, in 2003, returning from a day’s work he was picked up by the police for not having the correct ID papers. Akbar lived in a predominantly Muslim locality, and the communal undertones of his arrest were unmissable. The prevalent thought among the police, he says, was that if a person spoke Bengali, he/she was from Bangladesh. And the police didn’t dither in locking them up.

“They took me to Seelampur thana and called my father, asking him to come with the family’s documents. My father arrived with the papers (most people in the area rely on notarised letters from panchayat heads or local MLAs in their districts stating that they are in fact Indian citizens) and they took the papers and hid them,” he recalls.

The family had to cough up Rs 1,000 to get the papers back and Akbar released. The incident would end up shaping his life.

Police ki dabish chalti thi (There were raids by the police),” he says. “We lived in constant fear. They could lock us in anytime. A cop car would park right at the end of the street, all through the night. If the mood hit them, they would barge into homes, without knocking and take entire families away to the thana. Those that showed them documents would have the papers torn and shredded in front of their eyes.”

Also read: Wasted Lives: The Tragedy of India’s ‘Safai Mitra’

Akbar approached Chintan India (a non-profit that works on waste workers’ rights and waste policy) with his case, who in turn petitioned the Delhi high court to intervene. Akbar says the police never admitted to their crime but stopped creating trouble thereafter.

“I worked with a lot of these organisations in the coming years. I worked with Chintan for almost 10 years, then with Harsh Mander’s Aman Biradari Trust, and Mother NGO… I learnt a lot, but I also realised that there is only so much that they can do. After a while, the communities have to protect themselves.”

Private aid       

Basti Suraksha Manch (BSM) came into being in 2019 and one of its first objectives was to help waste pickers avail rations at the peak of the pandemic. Most waste pickers are informal workers who migrated to the city from rural India, which means that even today many don’t have proper government ratified identity documentation like ration cards or voter IDs. Many also face the unique problem of having incorrect names printed on their identification documents (Akbar says this is common because most of them are illiterate and therefore rely on others to fill them in). Without IDs, they couldn’t access any government schemes, benefits or services.

Waste pickers handle and collect approixmately 40% of the city’s waste but are largely an informal sector, therefore not entitled to any government benefits, schemes or privileges. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

“It is of utmost importance now that social security is ensured for all informal workers in India. There are multiple and complex reasons why they cannot access the programmes and schemes. It is essential to create awareness amongst informal workers about their rights and entitlements. Both government and employers must come together to do so,” says Ranjana Das. Das leads the work on informal sector workers for Oxfam India; the NGO is soon set to begin work here to help the community get their rights and entitlements.

“Where we are sitting right now… this is where we’d get the supplies,” Akbar says. “Late in the night we would sit and pack them into aid kits, make lists of families in need and then distribute it individually.” The money was provided by companies with CSR funds, eager to help out. Last year, BSM provided food aid to over 28,000 waste worker families across Delhi. This year, Akbar says, the number is already higher.

Most waste pickers don’t have certified government IDs like voter cards or ration cards, and therefore cannot access most government schemes and services. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

“You can look at this and say, wow we are doing good work. But you also have to look and ask, why has the number of people we need to help increased? Honestly, things are not going to get better. COVID-19 is just the spark. The industry is in a huge crisis.”

Misguided policies leading to loss of livelihoods  

The irony of waste workers losing their jobs and livelihood in the midst of a pandemic that demands social distancing, hygiene and cleanliness should not be lost on any of us. The lockdowns may have helped different facets of urban society recover and breathe, but consumption never hits pause. In an urban economy, people always need more and in turn waste more. There is enough to buy. And a lot to throw away.

“There are thousands of people involved in this work,” Jameela, 24, says. “You have to save our jobs. You have to think about us.” Jameela does door-to-door pickups in Dilshad Garden A Block but has seen her work halved in the past year. A waste worker’s average monthly income ranges between Rs 12,000 and Rs 15,000 and Akbar estimates most have taken a 60% hit.

Also read: How Waste Pickers in the Global South Are Being Sidelined by New Policies

As much as this is down to the lockdowns which rendered most waste workers jobless, it also has to do with policies designed to make them so. On August 8, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a week long ‘Gandagi Mukt Bharat’ campaign aimed as much at reducing waste generation as it was promoting the launch of an “interactive experience centre” called the Rashtriya Swacchta Kendra at Rajghat.

Manwara Begum, 40, a resident of the Dilshad colony, says the MCD trucks are chiefly responsible for the decline in waste picker incomes. The trucks operate in the same societies as the waste pickers and have profited during the pandemic, with people reluctant to allow door-to-door collection. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

The statements are well and good. Every society should aim to reduce and take responsibility for their waste. But beneath all the posturing though, remains the fact that the waste industry employs a huge number of people, and contributes hugely to the economy.

Rifling through the cart, sorting out plastic bottles, packets, bits of paper and cardboard from a mound of organic waste, Jameela offers clarity. “Pehle toh gandagi aur kabada mei farak hai. Koode aur kabada se hum paise kamate hain. Par ab woh kaam kam ho gaya hai (There is a difference between garbage and waste. And we earn money from the sale of waste. But this has reduced now).”

Jameela, 24, does the rounds of A Block Dilshad garden and has only managed to recover her work over the last few months. Her income has dropped by half over the past year, but, she insists this has more to do with private contractors than COVID-19 lockdowns. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

Saddam chips in. “Bhai, batau toh, nagar nigam ki gaadi se humara kamai sabse zyada mar gaya…(To tell you, the MCD has affected our income a lot).”

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) allows private companies to operate waste collection trucks in localities where waste workers would collect door to door. The trucks ask citizens to drop their waste themselves, most of which is unsegregated. A truck worth of waste goes for about Rs 100, Jameela says, but in truth, because it’s unsegregated, a huge amount goes into landfills.

The entry of private companies in waste is a neat rounding off of capitalist excess and also a huge blow to waste workers. At the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, police enforcement made it difficult for waste workers to go to colonies to collect trash door to door. Those that managed to arrange permits found that households were suddenly reluctant to have someone from outside come to their door and collect the bag (ironically in the same period, home deliveries in India spiked to an all-time high). The MCD truck became the preferred option.

“The truth is, most people don’t like to even look at their trash,” Jameela says. “Sochna toh door ki baat hai. Badbu aur woh gandagi pasand nahi hai logon ko (They dont think about garbage; they just don’t like the smell and the look of the garbage). Once it’s handed over to us, or dumped into the truck, they don’t care what happens to it. In the millennial lingo, this can be translated to OOSOOM.

Contrary to popular belief, India has a vibrant and efficient recycling system enabled by waste pickers who sell segregated waste to dealers who move it on to reprocessing units. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

“When a waste picker collects door to door, they do it because they see value in the waste. They go through it to find what they can sell,” Jameela says, while sorting through a thela of waste she collected from her morning round. Paper, plastic, and electronic waste is meticulously picked out and dumped to one side, where another group of workers segregate them further. The organic waste will be dumped away into the dhalao for animals to feed on. “This could be turned into compost ideally, but someone has to provide the space,” Jameela shrugs.

The MCD trucks are awarded to companies via tenders. Almost without fail they all play the theme song of the Swachch Bharat Mission on loop while carousing through colonies. Over the years multiple colonies have complained about the infrequent schedules of the trucks as well as the lack of care they take after collecting the waste. Most end up dumping the collection in dhalao.

Paper, plastic and cardboard fetch the best price in the reselling market, but government bans restricting certain plastic products will hit waste workers incomes adversely. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

The entry of private companies into waste work worries Akbar, because it foretells a future where waste workers will be forced out of independent contracts and become reliant on company work.

“Slowly we are being forced into a form of indentured labour,” he says. These private companies take charge of a dhalao and their contractors have been told that any waste picker who operates out of the dhalao will have to pay Rs 2,000-3,000 to gain access to it. Your other option is to enter into an agreement with the company where they pay you Rs 6,000 every two to three months, and ask you to do the segregation work for them.”

“If the private companies employ us full time, they have to give us a minimum wage, a regular salary, give us access to healthcare… ask any waste picker who works at the dhalao for these companies, if they have any of that. I guarantee you not.”

Akbar estimates that the 3.5 lakh waste pickers in Delhi are responsible for managing — via segregation and reselling it to recyclers — 43% of Delhi’s total waste. The earnings from reselling waste make up a bulk of their income but with door to door picking slowly fading away the money is spent getting access to dhalao. In many cases the trucks dump the waste at landfills across the city and take no responsibility thereafter.

“If we don’t do this, if the waste pickers of Delhi are made redundant, in my opinion, there will be mountains of waste taller than the Qutub Minar all across the city.”

Problems with making waste pickers redundant 

The mountains already exist. A trip to the borders of Delhi, near Ghazipur or Bhalswa, will reveal the extent of the problem. And no one knows how it will end. In this economy of desire, production is at an all time high. Products are being knocked out at record pace and consumption, despite the downturns, has remained somewhat steady. On top of this have come the haphazard, unplanned proclamations of banning plastic at the consumption end without taking into account its production excesses. Any policy that does not address the needs of the workers will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the ground.

Contrary to popular belief, India has a vibrant and efficient recycling system enabled by waste pickers who sell segregated waste to dealers who move it on to reprocessing units. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan.

There should be an urgency to understanding the situation, anger even, but no one seems very bothered. The scene behind Gurudwara road in Dilshad Colony is jarring. Both sides of the street are filled with temporary shelters erected as waste workers sit and sort through consumerist rubble. The kilometre long stretch is dotted with these structures, each of which has a small hillock of trash and at least 10 workers ankle-deep wading through it. Sorted into piles by category they are then packed up and carted away to a buyer. The afternoon heat beats down on everyone and shadows puddle at their feet.

Still sorting through her cart meticulously, Jameela snorts when asked what they can do to help. “What can they do? They can save our jobs. Stop giving it away to private companies that don’t want to deal with the waste. Nobody wants to look at waste. We do. Give it to us.”

Note: This story has been written as part of an assignment for Oxfam India, New Delhi.

Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer.