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  • Siddharth Kaushik

Pick your Misery: Survival or Sickness?

Altaf, a 30-year-old waste collector from West Bengal regularly collects waste from Rohini in North West Delhi. Armed with his mask and gloves he segregates wet and dry waste often exposing himself to unknown toxins and potential viruses. He ‘dodges’ the police every day to reach his registered ration shop. By the time he reaches, flouting the lockdown rules, the subsidised ration is finished. Altaf has only two options. Either to quarantine himself and his family amidst the foothills of the toxic landfill or to step out and pick up waste, in order to feed his family. 

The unforeseeable coronavirus brought a complication along with itself in the form of a national lockdown in India. But even though this complication is a necessity, it is to be noted that this lockdown is not the same for every socio-economic class of the country. Sadly, there is no messiah for people like Altaf who are still on the streets, working as essential workers and risking their lives to protect us. These are the labourers who are working in the waste aggregation and disposal sector.

The average rag picker goes through a basic process of collecting and selling the garbage. Mainly there are two types of labourers in this sector. First of these are those working under contracts for the Municipal Corporation and collect garbage door to door. The other is those labourers who collect garbage from public places and even some communities without any legal contract or recognition in place. They then sell the garbage to private recyclers. The number of the latter highly outweighs the first type. Delhi has around 200,000- 300,000people who work in this informal sector and their job has become much harder during this lockdown. The risk of contracting some disease or a complication is present all the time, regardless of COVID but the current situation has only amplified the risks especially when we consider that most of these workers do not have the equipment that is needed to properly deal with the situation. Masks, gloves and rag picking devices may seem like an everyday item of use for us, but it is a luxury for those people who depend on everyday earnings to feed their families. A rag picker in Delhi, on average, earns 150-175 Rs. Per sack of rag. Also, most of these workers do not have the proper legal documents required to gain the benefit of various general national schemes. Only 3% have BPL cards which are crucial to gain benefits, and only 21 % have ration cards. That said, one should also take into consideration that there is no national-level scheme for rag pickers in specific, and some of these people get benefits from other schemes but not all of these workers.

The current policies can be looked at in two ways. Firstly the pre-existing policies which talk about waste pickers whether at the national level or state and local level. Second, are those policies which have been announced in light of the pandemic. On the national level, first and foremost, legislation is imperative for their protection. For their current legal status, the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 does a commendable job in defining waste pickers and their work. There were various recommendations made in these rules. The main rule concerning the labourers is Rule 15 which makes the municipal corporation liable to recognize these workers and place upon these labourers the duty of door to door collection of waste. The number which is employed by the municipal corporation is very low compared to the actual number of labourers. Here we identify the key complication with SWM 2016, which is that there is no mechanism suggested which the DMC could stick to, to identify these people. Further, the SWM Rules also failed to recognize the Minimum Wage guarantee for these works. The primary blemish of the policy lied in its ineptitude in tackling the lack of legal recognition for these people. Since no policy effort was made to recognize these labourers there was no liability on the local bodies. Further SMW 2016 does not have any provision of training these people. Training waste-pickers in segregating dry from wet trash, say officials, can increase material recovery for recycling by as much as 30 per cent. 

A woman at the Ghazipur dump yard in Delhi Image Credits: Mark Coughlan

Other welfare policies have also not been very helpful either. The Minimum Wage Act of 1984 specifically regards only the assurance of payments of only those who are working under an employer. Delhi does have a few members who are recognized by the municipal corporation in the form of contracts but the majority is not getting their minimum wages at this time due to them working independently. Recognizing that only 7 % of the total garbage is collected by labourers who work for the Delhi Municipal Corporation, the labourers under contracts of DMC have continuously attained elevated standards of legal recognition and have been provided other rights of health and basic incomes. The New Delhi Municipal Council Solid Waste Management Bye-Laws 2017 has done a commendable job in giving rights such as protection from occupational hazard and other basic health rights. The fundamental flaw in the framework is that these workers are meant to collect their money from houses instead of the corporation. This creates a lack of enforceability of the money collection and especially during a pandemic where not everyone can go out to collect garbage, they are not getting the financial earning required to sustain themselves.

When it comes to the policies which have been brought forward during the COVID crisis, there are three places where policy failure is visible. Firstly, the Delhi government has announced that it will be paying labourers in construction industries that are under contracts. Now even though the two sectors are different from one and another, the government has to look into the possibility of expanding this scheme to those rag pickers who are under the Municipal Corporation and those who will be recognized by the MC. The problems that the workers in the two sectors are facing are similar. Both have a majority of migrants, without much sustenance. Both haven’t been able to consistently do their jobs during the pandemic and lastly, the labourers in both the sectors don’t have economic capital to live through the pandemic. That is why this scheme must be expanded to the garbage sector as well. Further, even though the National Green Tribunal has issued guidelines for proper disposal of hazardous waste from hospitals and houses of quarantined people, the risk that these labourers take is very evident. Even though those workers who come in the category of sanitation workers have been given safety equipment, which includes workers in hospitals and those who collect garbage from homes and centres of quarantined and COVID patients, the same is not the case for the everyday rag picker. The case of waste collection from homes where asymptomatic patients reside produces complications. Adding on to that, most of the Indian households do not properly segregate their waste and it is the labourer who is faced with the daunting task of manually segregating the waste. Specifically, in Delhi, there is a large group of waste workers who segregate the waste in a landfill in Ghazipur without any recognition. This group of labourers faces a bigger problem in their health standards. All this is done without the proper safety equipment. These workers have neither the awareness nor the proper comprehension on how to handle such waste, which may be a carrier of the disease.

The relevant health policy which ideally should be available for these labourers is the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna but it also requires BPL cards for one to be eligible. Similarly, to gain the benefits of the Garib Kalyan Yojna, which will help them sustain the pandemic better, they will need legal recognition. The 7 % working under the Municipal Corporation have been given facilities that help in creating the cards and therefore the scheme is more accessible for them.

The main objective of the government has to be to change the current policies in place or try to improve the ones which already exist. Rag pickers have long been denied their legal status and even socially they are not valued as other workers like doctors, sanitation workers, etc. are in the fight against COVID. The most effective method would be to expand the New Delhi Municipal Council Solid Waste Management Bye-Laws 2017 to other municipal corporations, like the one in South Delhi, as it has not only shown positive results but also caters to the welfare rights of the registered members. Further, there is a need for changing the procedure of collection of money wherein, it is the cooperation that pays the rag pickers their money, assuring them minimum wages instead of the households.

For the labourers who are not currently registered or legally recognized, the Delhi government needs to consult the informal sector and the waste picker organizations. The Maharashtra government was able to identify the majority of these labourers by working with NGOs and creating a cooperative. Bangalore has done a good job in the aspect of identifying the people who have been working in this sector, by cooperating with various NGOs who also work in this sector. Perhaps, following a similar model can reap benefits for Delhi as well. The NGO Chintan in Delhi has previously worked on similar policy changes that can prove to be useful in identifying the private recyclers and private kabadiwalas, to whom these labourers sell the garbage that they collect. Once these labourers are identified, they need to be given Identity Cards and help them in creating legal documents like BPL and Aadhar Cards by the MC.

Further, their protection of health and occupational hazards should be expanded to other parts of the city as it already exists under the NDMC SWM Bye-Laws 2017 which provide healthcare facilities as well as facilities like proper equipment and transport facilities. Another important benefit that comes after legal recognition is that they will be able to reap the benefits of the Garib Kalyan Yojna which was expanded during the pandemic. The cooperatives also need to conduct training sessions and educate the labourers on the welfare schemes that they can apply for. Also since they will now be under an employer proper minimum wages can be assured under the Minimum Wages Act 1984. In terms of the problem faced during the coronavirus lockdown, Delhi government, upon identifying these people through the existing cooperatives and NGOs needs to expand its current policy of paying the construction workers under contracts, to expand it to the garbage collection sector. The policy which provides protective equipment to the doctors and sanitation workers needs to expand to provide these labourers with basic equipment like gloves and also basic information regarding the safety measures they can follow.

The whole policy process needs to be three-pronged, following the tenets of Identifying (the labourers), Recognizing (their legal position) and Prioritizing (their welfare). The problem that these instrumental workers face in society is not just from a legal perspective. The social behaviour towards these workers also needs drastic change. Whether this ignorance stems from the comfort of our privileged bubbles or is an attempt at erasing and nullifying the efforts of a community, I will not comment on. However, it is important to recognize that the onus of recognition of this group is shared within the community and the government. The truth is, that everyday waste collectors are as valiant a warrior as any essential service provider. And it is time that they receive the recognition that they deserve, unequivocally.

By Siddharth Kaushik

The featured image appeared in The Indian Express on 5 June 2019.


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