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Despite their pivotal role in Delhi, waste workers 'excluded' from waste management

By Ena Zafar* 

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has a major objective of achieving 100% Scientific Solid Waste Management (SWM) across all the statutory towns in India. The revised rules (Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016) continue to emphasise upon the need to ensure source segregation as the most important prerequisite for the scientific and environmentally sound disposal of solid waste.
We have seen an extensive deployment of collection, transportation and waste disposal technologies across Indian cities in the recent past. In most cases, adoption of the technological choices (Waste-to-Energy – WtE) appears to be reinforcing a centralised system of SWM. Waste management practices such as decentralised composting of wet waste and promotion of recycling through source segregation have become secondary to the deployment of WtE driven waste collection and transportation infrastructure across several Indian cities.
It is also observed that compliance to environmental norms has also not been followed by the existing WtE plants. People residing in the vicinity of these plants are constantly complaining of health risks associated with the operation of these plants near residential areas. It is widely reported that existing WtE plants continue to burn mixed waste despite a number of judicial interventions in favour of compliance to the environmental norms.
Despite these odds, waste pickers continue to play a key role in the primary collection and segregation of the solid waste informally. In most cases, the formal system of waste management does not recognise the contribution of waste pickers. These informal waste collectors provide their services to the residents and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) without any recognition of their immense contribution in environmentally sound ways of managing the solid waste. Their services are utilised by the resident either at very low cost or in many cases free of cost.
Due to constant ignorance of ULBs, informal waste pickers are often subjected to exploitation by the contractors in the waste management system at multiple levels. Their livelihood entirely depends upon the sale of recyclables that they recover from the segregation of the solid waste. The quality of their lives and livelihood opportunities remain unchanged despite recognition of their immense contribution in the policy documents. However, waste pickers continue to get excluded from the waste management system. In several cases, waste pickers are thrown out of the city.
A community roundtable on October 2, 2021 at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) Baraat Ghar, Nizammuddin Basti, New Delhi from 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm was organised by Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM); National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM); Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG); Institute for Democracy and Sustainability (IDS); Ambedkarvadi Lekhak Sangh (ALS); National Domestic Workers Union; Magadh Foundation; Shehri Mahila Kaamgar Union; and All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM).
The roundtable was attended by more than 100 waste pickers which included both men and women. The panelist included Rahul Karnamadakala Sharma of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR); Md Mansoor Raza of Janpahal; Bhawani Shankar of the Citizens for Clean Air, Gurugram; and Baley Bhai, independent activist.
Most of the workers migrate from rural to urban India in search of better livelihood  but  end up picking up waste due to no livelihood sources
The roundtable began with Shashi B Pandit from DASAM speaking about how the waste workers have not progressed since decades despite changes in laws or the administration. They were living in misery and continue to do so. He raised a question as to why the waste workers are still kept away from the waste management system.
Mansoor Raza spoke about need for recognition for the unorganised sector. An identity card for the unorganised sector was deemed necessary for which a long battle was fought. The Supreme Court passed an order to the Central in government which it has to form an inventory of the unorganised sector. He elaborated about the E-Shram portal and card and anyone from the unorganised sector aged between 16 yrs  and59 yrs can register for it. Phone number and aadhaar card need to be linked with the bank to receive its benefits.
Bhawani Shankar showed a plastic Bisleri bottle and said that we are from the category of people who produce waste. He shared a personal experience of his interaction with three siblings who were picking up waste. In his interaction, he asked the kids why they don’t go to school. The kids informed that they were beaten by the teachers as they used to pick up waste. He despaired at their condition and said that at the age where the kids should study and play, they were picking up waste for a decent livelihood and were scolded by the teacher.
He mentioned the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and minimum employment guarantee in the rural areas which is not applicable throughout the country. Most of the workers migrate from rural to urban India in search of better livelihood and end up picking up waste due to no livelihood sources. He asked workers to shift from unorganised to organised as their quality and quantity of work deserves dignity and respect.
Baley Bhai spoke about the exploitations that the waste workers face from the MCD and police officials where the workers have to pay them a small bounty to pick up waste. He said that the waste pickers are the real agents of ‘Swacch Bharat’ yet they are at the receiving end of exploitation and brutality.
Rahul Karnamadakala Sharma spoke about technology and Waste to Energy (WtE) plants. He the WtE plants operate in several countries in places where most of the waste is dry. In India, however, most of the waste generated is wet and burning it is not a viable solution. He insisted on waste mining and suggested alternatives through which waste can be managed instead of burning it in incinerators. He laid stress on decentralised waste management and its implication for the waste pickers.
Participating in the discussion, Sidharth Singh from the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) spoke about the SWM Rules 2016 which speak about bringing the informal sector into the mainstream and involving waste workers in the waste management system. He said, the knowledge about how plastics can be recycled is missing from the masses, though waste workers do know about it.
He concluded by saying that the workers when united can bring about changes and make their demands heard, but if they remain unorganised, their work will continue to be looked down upon and deprive of earnings commensurate with the work they do and respect they deserve.
Sanjeev Kumar from DASAM spoke about SBM, its second phase and how the workers who keep the city clean, live in hazardous and dirty environment. Despite living in Central Delhi, their neighbourhood is neglected. He concluded the roundtable by thanking the waste workers for their contribution towards the society and environment. The roundtable ended with the waste pickers sharing their grievances and daily day to day struggle.
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*National Coordinator, Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM)

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