Facilitating Recycling Should Not Come at a Cost – But It Does

Every garbage dump has the words Swachh Bharat Mission painted on it in bold letters, and yet, the policies to enable this suggest the opposite. The price of recycling is proving expensive for the waste picker community, citizens and the environment. 

Kameen Khan got the bad news on a day like any other, over a call in the afternoon from one of his regular buyers. They said they were going to drop the rates and hung up. It wasn’t so much a conversation as a declaration. Kameen put the phone down and did what he had to. He told the others about the new rates, faced the backlash, the complaining, the protests and then got back to work, sorting through waste.

“GST has destroyed incomes in this area,” Sheikh Akbar says. Akbar founded Basti Suraksha Manch (BSM), a de facto union to help waste workers in Delhi in 2019. He lives in New Seemapuri, near Dilshad Garden. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor with his wife and two kids. The building inches upwards, seemingly without any grounding – a vantage point that allows him a view of not just the road where waste segregation happens but also the apartments where all the waste comes from. “No one values waste like we do. But at least we could make a living from it. Now, this tug of war between our buyers and our sellers has ruined us.”

The reason for this is simple. Before GST, there was no tax on scrap materials – e-waste and metals carried a 6% VAT. Once the new rules were implemented in 2017, all categories of scrap are now taxed between 12-18%. Large-scale dealers buying segregated scrap from waste pickers have been forced to bear the brunt of this taxation, and have – in classic trickle-down economics – transferred its effects onto their immediate providers, the waste pickers.

Waste workers are responsible not just for collection but also segregation of waste, with their jobs under increased threat because of policies that have privatised the industry. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan

“Earlier, we got Rs 14 per kg for paper,” Akbar says. “But after GST, it has dropped by at least Rs 2.” Inevitably, waste pickers have been forced to offer lesser rates to those they take scrap from, who, in turn, have decided they are better off throwing it away in a dump, where it lies unsegregated before an MCD-authorised private company takes it away. These trucks work in silos, often taking away the daily bread waste workers relied on. Since most of the waste in it is unsegregated, it ends up in landfills. Follow the chain and the fallout becomes clear for all to see. Higher GST leads to less recycling. Unsegregated waste piles up in landfills. Landfills damage the environment.

“Now, slowly, even our access to the landfills has been restricted,” Kalu complains. “Earlier we could go there and gather some waste, bring it back, segregate it and sell it. But with buyers giving us lower prices on scrap, basically to protect their margins and the numerous restrictions the companies put… it’s become a hopeless situation.”

Largely reliant on incentivising – like everything else in the world – waste, this informal sector has shrunk to the point of being rendered meaningless. Every garbage dump has the words “Swachh Bharat Mission” painted on it in bold letters, and yet, the policies to enable this suggest the opposite. Facilitating recycling shouldn’t come at a cost, and yet now, it does.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) allows private companies to operate waste collection trucks in localities. A truck worth of waste goes for about Rs 100 but because it’s unsegregated, a huge amount goes into landfills. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan


While GST has caused a severe economic fallout among those working in the sector, bigger villains have emerged from elsewhere. With waste workers forced out of work during COVID-19 – a lack of access, police violence and the typical class segregation that was inherently part of the lockdowns – collecting trash from localities fell on the MCD trucks, leased out to private companies. The trucks took over areas waste workers catered to. They didn’t go door-to-door and instead relied on residents dumping their waste themselves. Upon reopening, they forced the original service providers out, only to offer them a way back in – via employment at a meagre wage.

According to Akbar’s estimates, 3.5 lakh waste pickers in Delhi are responsible for managing 43% of Delhi’s waste. With door-to-door waste picking slowly trickling away, their incomes have reduced and so has the waste that ends up in the recycler. Many waste workers, Akbar says, have been forced into finding other jobs.

“We have seen this ourselves. Right here,” he says, waving his arm to show the area around Seemapuri masjid, a road which also serves as a segregation, collection and distribution point. “We used to have so many more people working. Now, the men are mostly going and standing in labour lines early in the morning, and the women turning to look for work in domestic settings.”

The loss of livelihood has come at a time when inflation has peaked. The pandemic helped the 1% make their bungalows bigger, even as large sections of society felt the pressures of sustenance. From vegetables to flour, rice and even oil, prices have rocketed high, often changing not just consumption patterns but also entire cultures and behaviours.

“Everyone in this area,” Akbar says, “is a migrant worker. Most of them have a Bengal connection. Fish, or any protein, was anyway a luxury. Then, during the pandemic, even rice became something that only came as handouts. Where earlier cooking was mostly done in mustard oil, families have shifted to refined oil. Again, this is the GST effect. An increased tax has increased the price, and shifted the onus on the customer. We always suffer.”

Even as infrastructure development continues unabated across the country, for the homeless, the impoverished and the destitute, roads and footpaths are home. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan


The MCD election in December last year yielded a shift in power for the first time in 15 years, with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) taking control of the city’s civic service providers for the first time ever. The result prompted celebrations across the city, but at the places that truly feel its impact, the reaction has been muted and restrained.

“Politicians don’t care,” Shabbir says. “They come, ask for their votes, fold their hands, wave at us and go away. We’ll only see them next when the cycle ends and it’s time to cast votes again.”

Delhi’s waste was a huge point of contention in the lead-up to the elections itself, with AAP using the mismanagement of the city’s waste, and the lack of care given to its sanitation workers as a point of attack on the incumbent BJP. Upon their election, the party’s five-year plan lists the management of solid waste as a key part of the agenda, vowing to “clear the three garbage mountains [Bhalswa, Ghazipur, and Okhla],” in the city. How it endeavours to do this has passed without discussion.

Also Read | Bachaikari of Bhalswa: Narratives of Waste Pickers from a Delhi Landfill

The math is baffling. A Delhi Pollution Control Committee report says Delhi generates 11,000 tonnes of solid waste every day. Of this, 6,000 tonnes (21.6 lakh tonnes a year) end up at the three landfills in the city. According to government data, less than a fifth of the waste at these sites has been processed since the initiation of the 2019 project to flatten them.

Waste workers are responsible not just for collection but also segregation of waste, with their jobs under increased threat because of policies that have privatised industry. Photo: Vaibhav Raghunandan

Akbar says no technology or innovation can help flatten them in the way old-school waste workers can. Segregation and recycling are the only realistic ways to tackle waste. Reducing consumption is radical, politically fraught and perhaps impossible to work within current consumer-capitalist economic models. Policies have to rethink the way they deal with waste and those that work in the sector entirely. “You have to make the profession viable,” he says. “You can put as many bans as you want, but the landfills won’t stop growing. You aren’t after all banning the production of plastic, just the consumption of it. Without waste workers, these landfills will only grow bigger. And the city’s problems with it.”

Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer. This story has been written as part of an assignment for Oxfam Indias Inequality Campaign.