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To solve garbage mess, Delhi must empower its waste workers

columns Updated: May 05, 2014 19:07 IST
Shivani Singh


The grassy green slopes of the garbage dumpsite at Ghazipur look pleasant from a distance only if you keep your car windows rolled up. Undergoing reclamation, portions of it may have changed in appearance. But it is still a stink bomb.

Atop the 70-acre dump, which can tower above a 10-storey building, you can see a small army of rag pickers collecting every possible bit for recycling. They brave the stench, the feral dogs fighting for territory, and a host of health hazards in the absence of basic protection. Now with garbage collection in private hands, they are also at the risk of losing livelihood to firms.

Last week, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked the Centre, Delhi government and municipal agencies what they planned to do about the mountains of garbage collecting at Delhi's doorstep. These landfills were not just fouling the local air and groundwater but risking the lives of thousands of rag pickers, who sifted the toxic trash daily. The NHRC called it a violation of human rights.

Not many of us think of human rights when we discard our house waste every day. Stuffing in everything from kitchen rubbish to plastic, metallic packing, glass, batteries, CFL bulbs and even sanitary waste, we hand our garbage bags out to sweepers who transport them to the local community bin after segregating bits they can sell to kabadiwallahs. From here, truckloads are transported to Delhi's four landfills, where waste pickers collect what their counterparts in the streets may have missed earlier.

Experts say more than 50% of Delhi's waste is fit for composting, 30% is recyclable and the remaining 20% should reach landfills. But with no formal process of segregation in place, dumpsites receive almost the entire load. Delhi generates 9,000 tonnes of garbage every day. According to one estimate, by 2021, this will increase to 15,000 tonnes per day.

Two years ago, Bengaluru became a "garbage city" for a month when nearly 5,000 tonnes of waste generated daily piled up on the streets because the villages surrounding the IT hub blockaded the city's garbage trucks, which were turning their backyards into landfills. Lesson learnt, Bengaluru made segregating garbage mandatory for all households, stipulating fines up to R 500.

In Delhi, the law to make segregating waste mandatory for each household has been in the works since the early 2000s. From 2003-06, the MCD held workshops to convince citizens. When that didn't work, it sent a Bill stipulating fines to the Delhi government for approval. Since 2009, the Bill kept shuttling between the government and the corporations. Now, the rules of Management of Solid Waste are under revision by the Union environment ministry.

If the agencies could not get residents to do it, they could have at least recognised the rag pickers, who informally do what is essentially the job of citizens and the municipal staff. Instead, it handed over the job of collection and transportation to private contractors.

Last year, Colombian capital Bogota started paying its 15,000 waste pickers for their services. Brazil made scavenging an official occupation more than a decade ago. Closer home, the Pune Municipal Corporation awarded contracts to cooperatives to collect waste from 400,000 households. Workers got uniforms, gloves and pushcarts, modest health insurance, and for the first time in their lives, a regular income. They keep the profit from any recyclables they sell. The scheme saved Pune $2.2m a year, the city's joint commissioner of waste management told the Economist.

Delhi, on the other hand, is spending R 1,350 crore every year on its waste management and sanitation. Surprisingly, only 15% of this amount is spent on disposal. The rest goes into collection and transportation.

It may not be too late for the government to take lessons in cost dynamics from our waste workers. Including them in a safe institutional framework does not just make economic sense. It also helps tackle the bigger issues of urban poverty and basic human rights.