Tucked behind the boundary wall of Delhi Metro’s sprawling Vinod Nagar depot, barely a kilometre from NH-24, Sheikh Ajgar (24) lives with his wife and two children. While workers wearing helmets, safety boots and fluorescent jackets are busy constructing the upcoming metro depot, Ajgar in his shanty is carefully removing straw and dirt from a big lump of women’s hair.
For a week, he has been looking for a buyer to sell the 80 grams of hair which took him hours to clean. “I bought this from a waste collector for Rs 106 and after cleaning, I sell it for Rs 130 or so. But for days, the man who comes to pick it up from us has not turned up. Now I collect hair myself from the Ghazipur landfill to save money. There are days when my children live only on one bowl of daal because of the cash crunch,” Ajgar said.
For three years, he has been selling women’s hair to wig manufacturers but survival has become tough after the currency ban kicked in on November 9, he rued. Demonetisation, he said, has squeezed dry more than 1.5 lakh people engaged in Delhi’s waste collection sector. Godown owners have stopped buying wastes and waste collectors haven’t received wages for a month.
Dipu, who segregates and sells junk items like plastic bottles, utensils, chairs, buckets, phones and bulbs, in the Ghazipur slum complained that his earnings had fallen by more than 50%.
“Until a month ago, I used to earn Rs 300-400 per day. Now I barely make half of that. A kilo of copper used to fetch us Rs 300 earlier. It has come down to Rs 250 now. We get R 200 for brass, instead of R 250. Iron is down to Rs 11 from Rs 25 and a kilogram of plastic is being sold only for Rs 11 against Rs 18 before,” he said.
The situation was no different in east Delhi’s Seemapuri, another place waste collectors reside in large numbers. For four days, the management of two Madarsas in Gujarat have been calling Habibullah Khan for fee payment of his 18-year old son and 16-year old daughter.
“I have to send Rs 3000 as fees for my children’s education, but have no money. My shot is shut ever since the note ban was announced. Nobody is willing to buy recyclable waste anymore. People do not want to give away their new currency notes it seems,” Khan said.
Several godowns and small waste shops have also shut in the crisis. “I have more than a dozen workers under me, but haven’t been able to pay wages to any of them. What do I do? I am unable to get money from the bank. Most of the time I keep the godown shut. Business has never been so bad,” said Mehmood, a godown owner in Ghazipur.
NGOs that work closely with such waste collectors have also said that they were also facing difficulties in paying them. “We managed to pay some waste pickers associated with us two days ago because of a dearth of short change. Till now, we have been able to clear the wages of just 300 of them,” said Chitra Mukherjee of Chintan.
She added that it was also extremely difficult to get bank accounts created for waste pickers. “We have been able to create bank accounts for only 4,000 of them so far. It is difficult to get identification proofs for them. Demonetisation is the worst thing that could have happened to such people,” Mukherjee said.
Buni Bibi, a waste dealer, says she has been paying ‘commission’ to get change for her old 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. “If we give a Rs 1000 note then we get Rs 700 change. If we give Rs 500, then we get Rs 300 in return. For 2 days I stood in queues at the bank where I have an account and finally could withdraw only Rs 3000,” she said while her 3-year old daughter played with an old 500-rupee note..