As the electoral battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rages on ahead of the December 4 Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) polls, a lot remains to be understood regarding the visions of both parties when it comes to addressing Delhi’s mounting waste problem as well as the concerns of the waste picking community.
Within the public service sector, most workers vaguely categorised as “unskilled” or “semi-skilled” coming to Delhi’s National Capital Region from all parts of the country, particularly the North and the East, tend to be absorbed in ‘waste picking’ work. This is true within both unorganised and organised working spaces.
According to the NCR Planning Board, low-income migrant communities set up their homes close to where they work due to a lack of other/better housing options.
The Bhalswa landfill, located in NCR, is one such location with a thriving (low-income) migrant community, employed as waste-pickers and primarily engaged in door-to-door garbage collection, segregation, and reselling of valuable scraps.
To understand their living and working conditions – with the added stressors of pandemic-induced shocks and recent fire hazards in the Bhalswa landfill – the Centre for New Economics Studies’ Visual Storyboards team visited the residential areas within/near the landfill over the months of August, September and October.
The Bhalswa waste picker community
Inter-state migration in India has been motivated by the purpose of securing ‘upward’ work/vocational mobility amongst communities, especially those positioned at the lower strata of the socio-economic pyramid.
This trend has been most common during the past few decades, since the emergence of an urban-biased growth model was neoliberalised in the economic policy realm, further contributing to a widening of regional disparity in the areas of social and economic development, and in the aggregation of employment opportunities within the country.
According to the last (2011) Census, around 59% of the population that migrated out of state came from rural areas. This migration took place primarily to states with thriving urban work sectors. Visible since 2001, this trend has only accelerated in the recent past with improving manufacturing and service sectors, especially in the country’s northern states and close to the national capital.
Lying close to the Delhi-Haryana border, the Bhalswa landfill hosts thousands of low-income migrant workers who are originally from the rural belts of West Bengal.
The 54-meter mound has housed Delhi’s waste since the late 1900s. Apart from the waste, the landfill houses its pickers and choosers in large numbers, some with forgotten dreams of being riska (rickshaw) drivers and living in the main areas of the city.
Our field research team at CNES visited Tandoor Wali Gali and Rajiv Nagar, the two main spots near the landfill where most of the workers reside.
As ethnographers, we observed the spaces to be lined with makeshift houses made from scraps like tarpaulin and thermocol. With little to no differentiation between the wasteland and the residential spaces, the waste and water from bathroom pipes overflows into homes.
Due to the most recent fire which had spread across the landfill, not many waste-pickers live close to it. Each locale has a dedicated common segregation space where the community (mostly women) gather to separate waste. Their houses are typical jhuggi-jhopdis with only two rooms and a small hearth for cooking. This small space is shared by four or five members including the respondents, their spouses, one or two children and aged folks, in some cases.
Metropolitan city-capitals like Delhi have a migratory-pull effect on rural population(s). People in huge numbers leave behind their agricultural practices, wind up their small businesses and start a daunting journey to the centres of economic progress, hoping to earn enough money to survive.
The Bengali community living in the Bhalswa region of North Delhi migrated there from parts of West Bengal due to a similar pull effect. The community flourished with the few residing members bringing their families out of dire conditions back home. Now, most of the waste-picking work-trade in both the Bhalswa and Ghazipur landfills is done by the Bengali community.
“I left home in Bengal and first migrated to Orissa before I came to Delhi. I was working under a contractor as a construction worker and engaged in works like masonry and cement mixing. The contractor there was exploitative and did not give me money, so I left that job and moved to Delhi with my family.”
– Ahmed Sheikh, a waste picker of the Bhalswa community.
The promise of better pay has caused the separation of many families. For 40-year-old Amal who has been here for the past decade, meeting his family requires making difficult financial choices.
“My youngest two still live in my village and their grandparents take care of them. I met them two years ago, but I have not saved enough money to go back home yet.”
Some workers migrated back to their villages during the pandemic, which gave them an opportunity to live with their children for a few months. However, this came at the cost of stagnating finances, bringing household activities to a halt.
Due to high in-migration and the consequent increase in the supply of labour, people face the fear of easily being replaced. This accounts for job insecurity in the highly saturated waste-picking industry. High labour supply in the form of an unorganised, informal work force has also caused waste workers’ wages to plummet over time.
Since there is no formal institution representing the interests of waste pickers, such as an officially recognised workers’ union, waste gatherers find it difficult to negotiate for better wages or even the securem regular payment of minimum wages. Private companies employing these workers without any formal contracts leverage this void, which stems from a lack of state empathy for the workers and the failure to provide them with any form of vocational or income based security to protect their interests/wellbeing.
“Nowadays, too many people have been coming here to be kabadiwalas. Our share of wages are decreasing.”
– Nizamuddin, a waste picker at Bhalswa.
Some workers reported to our team that living conditions in Delhi have been overwhelming. They often encounter a sense of abandonment and isolation from the general citizenry, living, as they do, on the margins.
Most lack legal identities, having no access to documents like Aadhaar cards, voter IDs and ration cards. Others that do have these with the addresses of their native villages. This inhibits them from participating in any of Delhi’s elections and, consequently, from having a say in who governs them.
Abdul, a first generation resident of Bhalswa, spoke of going through great pains to vote. All waste pickers visit their villages to cast their votes during national and state elections. Travel costs often go as high as Rs 10,000 for some, yet they never fail to vote. Workers across the sample (especially women) echo Abdul’s sentiment that this act gives them a sense of belonging and an emotive connection to ‘home’, which has largely remained absent for most workers since their migration to Delhi.
This isolation translates into a lack of awareness of relevant policy measures. For example, oblivious to the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme, some workers have reported buying ration from their villages and bringing back the leftovers. The community continuously struggles to access basic goods which are necessary for survival. Accessible government health services are not worth considering as workers opt to visit private clinics or local quacks, no matter how high the fee.
Some of these facts have been previously narrated, with findings being consistent with our previous study on waste pickers (during the pandemic); on the steel workers of Wazirpur; sanitation workers of Assam; factory workers of Narela; and the low-income migrant communities of Kapashera.
A basic perspective on measured economic well-being for a group can be evaluated by studying their access to subsistence goods like clean water, electricity, and nutrition. In our ethnographic survey and conversations, we observed most waste pickers buying packaged clean drinking water from private sources and depending on dirty water for other needs.
Nizam (52) mentioned this as a significant (and unnecessary) portion of their monthly expenditure; others thought this was the norm everywhere else. The workers’ monthly expenditure on rent, food, water and electricity goes up to Rs.10,000. With a salary of merely Rs 12,000-15,000, they can hardly afford to spend on education or save for the future.
“This work breaks my heart and soul but I cannot stop. I hardly earn Rs 15,000-16,000 a month out of which Rs 3,000 goes in rent. It is so sad that I have to buy things like water too. The government doesn’t provide water nor does it provide ration. I bear all the expenses and end with no money left.”
– Mahmud, a waste picker in Bhalswa.
Within the sample of waste-pickers, some work for the Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) and others work for privately-run waste collection enterprises. It is observed that the nature of the pay is consistent and timely in the case of the Municipal Corporation.
However, the workers employed by private enterprises had complaints regarding inconsistent and untimely payments, sometimes delayed up to four months. During these trying times, they face difficulties in paying rent and buying goods like water and electricity.
What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to the lower wages of waste pickers. The pandemic caused the rates for waste materials to drop, meaning workers had to sell larger quantities than before just to break even. The waste workers continue to hope that the rates will rise again, providing them with some financial relaxation.
“During the four months of monsoon, we face huge difficulties in segregating waste. We usually face losses during the monsoon season.”
– Shahana, a waste picker at Bhalswa.
On women and the youth
While the role of the male waste pickers ends at mid-day, the female residents of these colonies face an additional burden. It is observed that women who usually help their husbands segregate the waste bring sacks full of unsegregated waste to their houses and carry out segregation on their premises; all while keeping an eye on their children and continuing with their household chores.
“Now it really doesn’t matter whether I like this work or not. My only wish is to educate my children. I don’t want my kids to step into this business of waste picking ever. My father did not care to educate me, hence I am here but I don’t want the same for my kids.”
– Mahira, a waste picker at Bhalswa.
There is no formal distinction between the landfill and their residences as waste overflows into homes. This leaves the houses unhygienic and inhabitable, spreading various diseases and causing their health expenditures to rise. Water access and better sanitation is a key issue for the community as water-borne diseases often break out during monsoons that disproportionately impact the health of children and women living in the area.
The mothers often take help from their children in the task of waste segregation, although some respondents were adamant about not letting their children enter the waste industry. Some want their children to get educated, however, many children had to drop out of school during the pandemic because they did not have access to mobile phones or laptops to attend online classes.
“My youngest child goes for waste-picking. I rely solely on him for money because I can’t work by myself. He couldn’t finish school because we couldn’t afford a mobile.”
– Shahana, a waste picker at Bhalswa.
“This work is demeaning for us, but I have no other option and nowhere else to go. I have no money to feed my family and educate my children.”
– Ansari, a waste picker at Bhalswa.
In our observations, drawn from a closer ethnographic survey, the migrant worker community of waste-pickers in the Bhalswa region can be observed to lead a tough life. The community lacks representation in bargaining for better wages. It exhibits a lack of awareness of the new state-supported welfare schemes rolled out for migrant workers to help reduce their financial burdens to some degree.
The Delhi administration can do much in this regard by starting awareness campaigns that help the community and assisting in the transfer of identifiable documents to Delhi, which would allow them to avail resources and state welfare schemes in both cash and kind.
Forming a trade union may also help in effectively communicating the waste workers’ struggles to state authorities in order to minimise them. This would provide them with a voice to make their struggles/resistance heard.
Finally, undertaking more extensive ethnographic surveys (like this one) in other areas, while narrating the concerns of waste pickers from other spatial geographies, can help in creating a more robust, academic and policy advocacy framework of worker concerns and help direct the attention of policy makers towards interventions required for enhancing worker capabilities and well being.
“You are coming and asking questions, so we are answering. If someone else asks questions and we give information, then only we can let others know that we need access to these government policies. If no one comes here and asks us questions then what do we do and where do we go?”
– Sheikh, a resident of Bhalswa.
Deepanshu Mohan is Associate Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University.
Jignesh Mistry is a Photojournalist and a Senior Research Analyst, Visual Storyboards Team Lead with CNES.
Ashika Thomas and Rutu Patel are Research Assistants with CNES.
Shubhangi Derhgawen is an independent researcher.
Names of all respondents have been changed to protect their identity. All photo credits belong to Jignesh Mistry.
This story is produced by the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) Visual Storyboard Team, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University. See its website here for access to previous stories. Video Essays from this story are published here. Photo Essay here
The authors would like to thank Sheikh Akbar Ali from the Basti Suraksha Manch for his kind assistance in helping the research team connect with the Safai-Mitra in Bhalswa, Seelampur and helping them learn about their life-stories. For any inputs/comments on the story, please write to CNES team at [email protected]