New Delhi: Hari Singh sorts—bare-handed—through egg shells, used condoms, broken bottles and the occasional dead rat for a living. He’s been doing this job for more than 30 years, but the business of garbage collection is starting to feel dirty.
Across the country, the push for privatization in waste management has forced rag pickers such as 65-year-old Singh to choose between losing their jobs and joining the companies that have landed government contracts.
Most have opted for the latter—attracted by the promise of fair compensation, uniforms and safety gear.
And yet, Singh and advocates for rag pickers say, work conditions have largely remained unchanged and some are making less than they were before industry stepped in—with no leverage to demand better.
And, then, there are the sticky, cyclical questions that seem to have no end or answer: Just whom does garbage—and the profits that can be reaped from recycle or reuse—belong to: the picker, the employer or the municipality?
Waste side story: Hari Singh at a garbage dump in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. After privatization, work conditions for rag pickers have remained largely unchanged; some of them are making even less than they were before they joined the firms that won the government contracts. (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint)
Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Bangalore all have begun to engage private sector garbage collection. In New Delhi, the contract to collect trash in the area around the Capital’s teeming Connaught Place was handed over to Ramky Group, the private waste management organization based in Hyderabad, by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation.
Under a contract signed on 20 August 2007 by Harit Recyclers Association (HRA), which represents the rag pickers, and Ramky, it was agreed that HRA’s rag pickers would be hired to segregate solid waste into organic and inorganic material into the Ramky bins and keep the appointed territories around the bins clean in areas that include Connaught Place, Mandir Marg and Gole Market.
“Ramky told us that ‘we will give you work, give you a better sitting place with lots of space, tube lights, water taps and money,’” said Singh, through a translator. “This is what they said, but nothing has been given.”
Sanjiv Kumar, Ramky’s general manager of operations in Delhi, admitted to some allegations against his organization and disputed others. The ones he admitted to, he says were justified because the rag pickers did not live up to their side of the contract.
The contract states that rag pickers would receive, among other things, safety and cleaning gear, and payment on the 10th of every month starting October 2007—though the exact amount of this pay goes unmentioned in the contract. Shashi Bhushan, general secretary of HRA, through a translator said some compensation should have been given for the rag pickers’ work.
HRA now claims that neither compensation nor supplies have been given to rag pickers. Ramky terminated the contract on 31 January.
“Ramky has not released even a paisa to us,” said Bhushan. “Ramky has violated the entire agreement paper.” He added that the rag pickers will have no choice but to work for private companies because government contracts currently give the right over solid waste to the private contractor, not waste pickers. In some areas, rag pickers before privatization earned Rs3,000 every month. Now, they make as little as Rs1,200, according to HRA.
Kumar admitted to not paying the workers. He justified this by saying that rag pickers did not keep the areas around the bins clean, and instead of putting waste in the bins, workers would spend more time sorting out items that they could sell to junk dealers.
“They did not meet our expectations,” he said.
Kumar also says he detailed these complaints in three non-compliance letters he sent to HRA, though he would not provide copies of these letters. HRA said it received only one letter from Ramky.
Kumar denied the charges of not providing materials to his workers. He said he has the receipts of brooms, shovels, gloves, masks and aprons given to HRA workers. He declined, however, to show Mint the receipts.
Bhushan said no materials were ever given to the workers.
The government supplied some safety materials to rag pickers in the last year, but not everyone has been reached, said several organizations that work with rag pickers.
“It’s important that they keep themselves healthy,” said B.C. Sabat, a senior scientific officer from the department of environment, New Delhi. Sabat would not comment specifically on Ramky, but said the government is looking into how privatization affects rag pickers.
“Private companies are only concerned with profit,” said Anand Mishra, a project officer of Chintan, a New Delhi-based NGO that has been working with waste pickers for several years. “They are only concerned with carrying waste to the landfill. They are paid on a tonnage basis, so many times all of the mixed garbage goes to the landfill. There is no segregation.”
Kumar said privatization is important because it is an essential public service. “Urban development, population and economic growth have overgrown the government machinery,” he said, adding that the private sector is often more organized and efficient.
Ramky manages waste collection in seven sizeable zones in the NDMC area and will expand to an additional four areas by March, said Kumar.
This is bad news for rag pickers, said Bhushan. Many of them will have no choice but to work for private firms. The only other choice they have will be to be displaced, he said.
Although the contract between HRA and Ramky has been broken, Singh said he will continue to work in Connaught Place to segregate what can be recycled and sold, and put the remaining waste into Ramky’s bins. He’s been working in the area for more than 30 years, sending money to his family in Himachal Pradesh every chance he gets. He has no intention to leave just yet.
“In exchange for work, give us money,” he says of what he wants from Ramky. “The thing you have promised about employment and livelihood—give me that.”