Muhammed Azad (50), the only earning member of a family of seven, leaves his makeshift home on the pavement at Canal West Road at 3 am. He scrounges the streets and tiny by lanes of Kolkata, sifting through the garbage to pickup paper, plastic bags, tin, iron scarps and bottles. Up until two years ago, he earned Rs 300 per day for about five hours of work. Now, all he can manage is an average Rs 50 per day despite breaking his back for almost 12 hours.
Ganesh Saha (42) and his wife Mamoni (34), residents of Beliaghata and parents to three children, venture out in the wee hours to start collecting garbage. What used to be an earning of Rs 400 per day, has dwindled down to a mere Rs 100.
The stories of Azad, Saha and Mamoni are not anomalies but a growing problem for rag-pickers in Kolkata as beautification drives shrink their livelihoods.
Home to more than 16,000 rag-pickers and 60,000 family members, Kolkata’s cleanliness drives have replaced open vats with compactor stations leaving little for the rag-pickers to salvage.
“Our livelihood is gone. The open vats have been replaced by giant compactor machines and we can’t reach their entrails to sift garbage. In almost all neighbourhoods, the Kolkata municipality sends vans to collect garbage. Earlier our bags were full after four hours of work. But now even 12 hours of labour hardly gets half a bag,” said Moidul, a 24-year-old rag picker from Canal West road slum, the only earning member in a family of five.
In 2013, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) introduced the compactor stations, an initiative funded by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Asian Development Bank.
The stations automatically compress garbage loaded into the bin cars of the compactor during the day. At night, mechanical lifters transfer the garbage to the Dhapa dumping ground.
Fifty compactor stations with more than 125 machines are currently operational in Kolkata, with another 100 machines expected to be added soon.
The staggering loss in livelihood has led to the Rag Pickers Association being formed to demand rehabilitation of such rag-pickers. The demand also includes jobs with civic authorities. Agitations are being sparked across all 144 wards.
“We have decided to protest and hit the streets. We will organize protest meetings at all 144 wards of Kolkata. The government should rehabilitate us, or our families will die,” said Azad.
The Rag Pickers Association has been floated with the help of a city-based NGO Tiljala Shed Camp that provides education and medicines to the community across the city, including Park circus, Tiljala, Topisa and Rajabazar.
“We have been helping the rag picker community providing some education for their children and some basic medicines. We will appeal to the government to do something to rehabilitate them. They can be absorbed in the KMC’s garbage management process, since they have experience in this field,” Muhammed Tauseef Rehman, vice president of Tiljala Shed Camp told Hindustan Times.
Representatives of the association are also planning on approaching chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Not all garbage
Used Plastic water bottle – Rs 12 per kg
Iron scrap - Rs 8 per kg
Used Tin - Rs 4 per kg
Used Paper (newspaper, normal paper cardboard) - Rs 2 per kg
Used Plastic carry bags - Rs 3 per kg
How rag pickers work
Rag pickers, who mostly live in slums, leave their homes at around 3 am and begin scrounging through the streets, dividing areas amongst themselves. They sift through the garbage in open vats and on the road side, picking up paper, newspapers, iron, tin cans, glass and plastic bottles, polythene carry bags and so on. The collection is then segregated, usually by the family, and sold to dealers for a per-kilogram rate.
First compactor station introduced in December 2012 in Kalighat
Presently 50 stations, 35 are being built
Each station has two to four compactor machines.
Over 16,000 rag pickers in the city, more than 60,000 family members
Earlier a rag picker would earn Rs 300 per day for six hours work
Now a rag picket earns Rs 50 per day for 12 hours work.