New Delhi: The New Delhi railway yards are less than a kilometre away from the main station, but none of the hustle or chaos of one of Delhi’s largest transit hubs spills over here. Five young men, dressed in a uniform of fluorescent green T-shirts and jeans, are busy at work in one of the sheds. Wearing gloves and surgical masks, they are segregating trash, with wet waste being collected on one side and dry garbage being piled on another.

Sanjay, Mangal, Arjun, Lateef and Safiq are members of the Safai Sena (cleanliness army), an association of waste pickers in Delhi and its environs (aka the National Capital Region). They are employees of the Chintan Material Recovery Facility at the station, a project that arose from a partnership between Chintan, an environmental research and action group, the Safai Sena and Indian Railways. The project aims to manage the garbage that is generated every day at the station. The T-shirts of the boys bear the legend Chintan.

“The project segregates the garbage into organic and non-organic waste. We recycle what can be recycled and ensure that the mineral water bottles provided by the railways are crushed rather than finding their way back into circulation," says Jaiprakash Choudhary. A slim man of 35 years, Choudhary used to be a waste picker himself, but is now the secretary of the Safai Sena and in-charge of the material recovery facility project, which is also active at Old Delhi, Nizamuddin and Anand Vihar railway stations.

Three times a day and thrice at night, a team of eight boys dressed in their uniforms go through the steel dustbins the railways has installed at every platform. Afternoons are when they collect the maximum garbage, with late nights being lean periods. Every time a train, especially a Rajdhani or a Shatabdi, rolls into the station, another team of 10 boys waits patiently, trash bags in hand, and with a cart ready to take away the garbage left behind by passengers. This usually includes water bottles, newspapers, plastic bags, wet waste, just about anything people dump in trains.

“It takes us 10 minutes to clean the train after which we head back to the sheds," says Lateef. “Back at the sheds, we separate the cardboard, bottles, papers, glass…everything into separate piles."

According to Choudhary, the project clears at least three-four tonnes of garbage from the station every day, including at least 5,000 mineral water bottles. Indeed, part of the shed is completely taken over by a mountain of mineral water bottles, which have been collected over the past two days.

“Hard plastic is segregated from soft plastic before we shred the bottle in the plastic bottle shredder that we have here," says Choudhary. The bottles pose one of the biggest challenges for the project, not in terms of recycling or collection, but the stiff opposition the project team of 115 has faced from the other waste pickers at the station.

“Every time a train pulls in, there are a few of them trying to get their hands on the bottles. Inevitably an argument ensues. These people sell the bottles with most of them eventually finding their way back into the market as unopened mineral water bottles," says Lateef.

The arguments are still an improvement over the occasional knife fight and fisticuffs that would break out in the initial years of the project. “It’s been three years since we got the contract to work here. We sourced our team from our (the Safai Sena’s) members who live nearby in areas such as Minto Road (near the New Delhi railway station)," says Choudhary.

The material relief project has a compost unit on the premises where the wet waste is processed. Silver foil, tea glasses, newspapers, cardboard, each type of garbage is segregated into separate trash bags and along with the shreds of the plastic bottle sent onwards to recycling factories in Muzaffarnagar and Ghaziabad.

“Waste pickers are a very trained lot. They can segregate recyclable components from your garbage on their own. When we started the project, we did not have to train them," says Chitra Mukherjee of Chintan. Almost the only thing they did, she added, was to clothe them in uniforms to give them a professional appearance. The organization provides the pickers with equipment, ID cards, uniform and is also looking at health insurance. The workers are paid a monthly salary of 8,500.

“Every month we save the railways upwards of 10 lakh. They would have had to hire different teams to do everything, from the collection to the segregation to the composting, but we are an all-rounder team," says Choudhary with a grin, resorting to the cricketing idiom.

Interestingly, the project collects garbage only from the bins and the trains, but is not responsible to clean the tracks. “The railways has contracted that out," says Choudhary.

Of the waste that is collected by the Safai Sena members, roughly 80% finds its way to either the compost or recycling plants. The 20% that cannot be recycled is deposited in the trash mound that is collected from the tracks. This is cleaned out every 24 hours.

The project is one of the two from the city that was awarded the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award 2014. It serves a dual purpose of sorting the garbage as well as providing a dignified livelihood for the waste pickers.

“Everyone talks about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s new programme aimed at cleanliness and better sanitation), but it is something that waste pickers have been working towards forever," says Choudhary.

“Earlier we would have been happy with just an appreciation of our efforts, but this project also brings dignity of labour to our members, and that is priceless," he adds.