He looks up as a firecracker whooshes up into the night sky and bursts into thousands of twinkling stars. “A wedding banquet,” Deen Dayal points to the other side of Harsukh Marg in Safdarjung Enclave. Shielded from the cold by a grey pullover and a cream-coloured muffler, Dayal, 40, is the neighbourhood’s garbage collector. Fearing delay, he had called his wife on the cell phone to not to wait for him for dinner.
“I will cook here on the pavement and not bother her when I reach home.” Setting a few twigs afire, Dayal places a pan on the makeshift stove. He takes out a cabbage from a polythene bag and starts peeling it. Two trolleys are parked on the pavement. Filled up with rotting food, vegetable peels, eggshells, empty beer bottles, cardboard pieces, plastic boxes and used sanitary napkins, they are emanating a pungent smell. “An MCD (Municipal Council of Delhi) truck will come to empty my trolleys.”
Dayal arrived in Delhi eight years ago. He started by collecting garbage from individual households but now picks up only from street dustbins. Employed on a contract basis by a private firm that works closely with municipal services, he earns Rs 3,000 a month.
“My wife gets enough vegetables to cook, my children go to the school.” Every day at 7 am, Dayal leaves his two-room house in Jaitpur, in south Delhi, and takes the 544 blueline for Safdarjung Enclave. He moves around in a pedalled wooden cart to gather the waste from different collection points. The day ends at 9 pm.
Till a decade ago, Dayal grew dhaan and urad daal on his farmland in Hathras, UP. “Money came only once in six months after the crops were ready to
be harvested,” he says. “Even that was uncertain because in some years the monsoon failed.”
Picking the city’s refuse was a better option than to plough one’s own land. “At least, I get money each month,” says Dayal. “Village life was different. In Delhi, when you buy brinjals, you have no clue about their freshness. But in the village, you pluck them off from branches and immediately chop them into a subzi. Even the peas there taste different.” But Dayal has no regrets. “The regular income guarantees my children’s education.”
The garbage collector has six children: Sourabh, Radha, Roshni, Sachin, Shivam and Sonam. “Unlike me, my children must never depend on others to read letters,” he says. “Who knows, if they really study hard, they may get office jobs.” But what if they become garbage collectors? “This job gives me money. But I don’t want my children to end up like me.”