After a bad day at work, Manorama Begum can hardly keep herself from vomiting. After a good day, she is merely disinclined to eat for a few hours, until the stench has receded from her nostrils and her fingernails are scrubbed clean.
A garbage collector in India’s capital, Begum is one of 300,000 little-seen workers who perform a vital role for the city: rifling through the detritus of modern life, recycling anything of worth and carefully disposing of the rest.
More than 95% of New Delhi has no formal system of house-to-house garbage collection, so it falls to the city’s ragpickers, one of India’s poorest and most marginalized groups, to provide this basic service for fellow citizens.
They are not paid by the state for their work, relying instead on donations from the communities they serve, and on meagre profits from the sale of discarded items.
But after centuries of submissive silence, the waste collectors are beginning to demand respect.
On 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the Delhi state government will make a small but significant concession. In response to pressure from a ragpickers’ union, it will supply about 6,000 of them with protective gloves, boots and aprons. Meanwhile, they pick through refuse—shards of glass smeared with the remains of yesterday’s dinner, broken shoes mixed in with rotting meat—with bare hands.
The government says its gesture will go some way toward granting the waste collectors a modicum of dignity. This is the first time the government has made any attempt to recognize this band of essential workers, and the moment will be marked with a gala celebration near the city’s Gandhi memorial. “Looking after rubbish, anywhere in the world, is not dignified,” said J.K. Dadoo, the secretary of Delhi’s environment ministry, while sipping cardamom tea in his cool office. “The very fact that we have acknowledged that we need to look after their health is a tremendous acknowledgement of their dignity.”
Youngsters at a slum in New Seemapuri live surrounded by the filth they collect from various neighbourhoods of New Delhi
The waste collectors are underwhelmed by the move. They do not want gloves, they say. They want wages, social security, pensions, health care, uniforms they hope will discourage police harassment, education for their children and decent housing.
A city’s waste and the way it disposes of it reveal much about the city itself. The system here is informal yet highly organized. Its capacity to recycle plastics and paper is efficient beyond the dreams of even progressive, recycling nations in the West.
In a society where hundreds of millions live in desperate poverty, everything has a value and nothing is redundant. Most strikingly, the city’s neglect of those who perform this service is typical of a much broader blindness toward those excluded from India’s blossoming economy.
Begum, 35, learns much about humanity during her daily rounds of 350 government apartments occupied by low-ranking state employees in South Delhi. Sifting through the onion peels, chickpeas and half-eaten chapatis, she can tell which families are struggling and which are feeling flush. From her fleeting encounters with them every morning, she knows which households are happy, which consist of good people and which she would rather avoid. There are the hard-up families, who save their own plastic milk cartons to sell to passing dealers for a few extra rupees to supplement the household budget. There are the generous ones, who recently donated money for her 16-year-old daughter’s wedding. There are the mean-spirited, who never give the expected Rs100 monthly donation she needs to feed her four children. “If everyone paid me, I’d earn Rs3,500,” she said. “I never even get Rs1,500.”
She has other ways of gleaning a return for her work. Ducking beneath laundry lines, darting into backyards, tiptoeing in red plastic sandals through filth piled on the streets, she is constantly searching for items that can be bartered or sold.
Finding good food discarded among the general litter, she transfers it to a separate plastic bag. Later, she will give it to one of the dairies whose cows wander the streets of New Delhi, in exchange for milk for her younger children.
“There are people who throw out a lot of food. But most of the people here are government employees; their salary isn’t high. These people think about how much they are going to eat and how much they are going to throw away,” she said, dumping potato peelings and yogurt containers into her tricycle cart.
The work is exhausting, but Begum says that after 14 years, she has developed a lot of stamina. Her husband, Mohamad Nazir, who works in a more affluent area, says he can see the transformation of the city in the trash he handles.
“People are earning more, they are spending more, they are throwing more stuff away now that Delhi has become rich,” he said. “Even I am earning more than I was five years ago.” One organization estimates that per capita garbage has doubled in New Delhi in the last decade, as consumption has soared. But it remains hard to scrape an existence from the refuse of middle-class life. The couple separates the vegetable matter from plastic bags (Re1 a kg), newspapers (Re1), glass bottles (Rs7), and brings the saleable items back for sorting in their nearby slum, where the middleman is also based.
On an average, each of them earns between Rs30 and Rs50 a day from the sale of the waste. In a home made from items salvaged on their rounds (the walls lined with flattened cardboard boxes, some marked “Whisper Choice Sanitary Pads”; the ceiling patched with automobile floor mats), they express bitterness about their lives. “It is the poverty that makes us do this work,” Begum said. “If I had an alternative, I wouldn’t be doing it. Who would like to collect garbage?”
The slum is made up of fellow Muslims, who generally experience higher unemployment and greater poverty than their Hindu neighbours.
Begum said she wants a different future for her children. “I don’t want my children to come into the business of garbage collecting,” she said. “I want them to do something better.” Her husband scowled at a mention of the government-supplied gloves, which he said would slow down the process of feeling through waste for nuggets of value.
“We save the government a lot of money every day,” he said. “They should pay us.” Rather than gloves, Begum said, she would like a mask to shield her from the vapours of rotting vegetables. “My eyes burn, my breathing is difficult and my chest aches,” she said.
At a Sunday afternoon meeting of ragpickers organized by a support group called Chintan, the government’s plan was met with little satisfaction. Several among the roughly 65 people seated on the floor told of beatings by police suspicious of their presence in residential areas in the early morning. A number of them described how city authorities refused to grant them space for sorting recyclable goods, and constantly harassed them to move on.
Others, wearing T-shirts with the line “Your waste is our business”, suggested that identity cards and uniforms would help. They also demanded health care, listing the myriad illnesses related to their work—from dog bites to worm infestations to respiratory ailments. “They are providing us with gloves and boots just so we don’t get sick and stop working,” Nazir said.
“If we stop, who is going to do this work instead of us? They know they won’t find other people who are willing to collect garbage. Within two days, the whole city would be stinking and filthy,” he added. (The International Herald Tribune)