Invisible green warriors

Nilanjana Bhowmick heralds India's most overshadowed environmentalists: waste-pickers

Rag pickers collect recyclable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT ENVIRONMENT)
Rag pickers collect recyclable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood 

Old Indian homes from the country’s colonial past – often raved about in style glossies – usually have elegant, long, spiralling iron stairs at the back. These were meant for the sweepers or the waste pickers, mostly from the lower castes (the dalits or so-called ‘untouchables’), to use to collect waste. In my parents’ 1980s house, we didn’t have a back staircase.

My parents were both middle-class, educated professionals, and yet they also felt it necessary to wash the stairs after Cheyt Lal – our neighbourhood waste picker – had been to collect the rubbish and clean the toilets. Fast forward to 2019. In my modern highrise, filled with upwardly mobile, iPhone-toting couples turned out in impeccable, branded clothes, people still drop their packets of waste during the daily collection into the waste picker’s drum from a safe distance, making sure they don’t touch the person.

This discrimination affects India’s around two million waste pickers, who are not just cleaning up our cities but are also the invisible saviours of the global environment. They prevent plastic waste – India generates nearly 26,000 tonnes of it every day, making it the 15th-biggest plastic polluter – flowing into rivers and oceans.

A recent study found that just 10 river systems are responsible for 90 per cent of the plastic that ends up in the ocean; eight of them are in Asia, including the Ganges. India manages to recycle as much as 80 per cent of its plastic waste, thanks to its army of waste pickers.

Despite global recognition of their efforts, India’s strict caste hierarchy places waste pickers at the absolute bottom. In 2016, Khokhan Hamid grabbed the United Nations Climate Solutions Award for his initiative in training waste pickers to safely collect and dispose of electronic waste. A year earlier, another Indian waste picker, Mansoor Ahmed, was chosen to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. In India, they remain invisible and unheard.

Recently, the first ever garbage café opened in an eastern Indian city, offering waste pickers a free meal in exchange for trash that would be reused to build roads. So, after years of cleaning up our cities, speaking at the UN, being at the forefront of the fight against India’s trash, all they can look forward to as an incentive is a meal a day?

Our waste pickers go about their work among mounds of garbage without proper training or protective clothing. This is especially concerning as Indian families do not really segregate their waste; biomedical and other hazardous rubbish is often mixed up with other household trash.

A 2016 piece of legislation requires households to wrap sanitary waste securely and dispose of it separately. But it is hardly ever implemented. Many are not even aware that such a law exists or how to implement such a law (using separate trash cans, for example).

A 2017 report published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology found most waste pickers complained of difficulty in breathing and chronic coughing, along with stomach problems, including nausea, dysentery and intestinal pain.

Surely our waste pickers deserve better than this? Such as a sustainable and dignified livelihood, and proper training and health benefits for fronting a challenge that is going to define our world in years to come – the war against climate change and ecological collapse. They need to be recognized as the green warriors they truly are. l

Nilanjana Bhowmick is a multi-award winning journalist based in New Delhi.