Metro Matters: How waste-pickers are Delhi’s greatest warriors against trash mountains

Hindustan Times | By
Mar 13, 2018 03:28 PM IST

India has a population of 1.3 billion but it’s not on the list of top ten plastic polluters, thanks to armies of waste pickers.

In its leader on plastic pollution, The Economist last week suggested that using less of the polymer was at best a partial solution. A better answer was to collect more and recycle.

Waste-pickers sort through garbage for recyclable waste at the Ghazipur landfill in east Delhi.(Raj K Rah/ HT file photo)
Waste-pickers sort through garbage for recyclable waste at the Ghazipur landfill in east Delhi.(Raj K Rah/ HT file photo)

The publication noted that the rich western world prohibiting and penalising use of plastic disposables – even the British Queen has banned plastic straws from her castles – may be better for the conscience than the environment because rubbish collection anyway worked smoothly in those countries.

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The problem really is in the developing world. All but two of the 10 biggest plastic polluters of the world are in Asia. Of these, only China can afford western-style waste-management in the near future.

India, despite its 1.3 billion population, was not on the list of top ten plastic polluters, thanks to armies of waste pickers. This model of waste management, The Economist felt, was the best way forward for countries that were too poor to employ sophisticated collection and recycling methods.

Surprisingly though, our civic administrations have had little to do with this innovation, which reduces the pressure on garbage dumps that are fast running out of space. For years, the faceless, socially marginalised waste-pickers have been doing informally what is essentially the job of the citizenry and the municipal staff.

Read: For Swachh India, focus on solid waste management

Every morning, koodewallas dump our garbage bags — stuffed with anything from kitchen rubbish to plastic, metallic packing, glass, batteries, CFL bulbs and even sanitary waste — in the local community bin after segregating whatever they can sell to kabadiwallas.

There is a second round of sifting, again by waste-pickers, at community dumpsters. From here, truckloads of garbage are transported to Delhi’s landfills where a third army of waste-pickers collect what their counterparts in the streets may have missed earlier.

Read: How we can stop the garbage mountains from sprouting in our cities

According to Chintan, an environment research non-profit, waste-pickers recycle almost 15-20% of Delhi’s garbage, saving the municipalities at least Rs 1 crore a day. But all they earn is a couple of thousand rupees each a month. There is no compensation for braving the stench, the feral dogs, and a battery of deadly germs without even the basic protection, prompting the National Human Rights Commission to label their living conditions as a violation of human rights.

Although much belatedly, the government is now attempting to make amends. Cleared by the Centre in April 2016, and to be adopted by all states, the Management of Solid Waste (MSW) Rules have specific clauses on the integration of waste-pickers into the formal system of garbage collection.

These rules ask generators to segregate garbage at source and hand over their daily discards in separate stacks to the waste-pickers. The local bodies have to register waste-pickers and waste-dealers, give them identity cards, and provide better working conditions by setting aside space for material recovery and storage facilities. They must also be paid reasonable honorarium generated from a stipulated user charge collected from households and commercial establishments for the service.

Segregation is the key to garbage management. Almost half of Delhi’s solid waste consists of compostable matter but proper sorting of the wet waste is a must for generating quality compost. Waste-to-energy plants can save a lot of energy that they otherwise waste in treating the mixed, moist, non-combustible trash they receive. Training waste-pickers in segregating dry from wet trash, say officials, can increase material recovery for recycling by as much as 30%.

In an ideal situation, if these rules are enforced and the work-chain is maintained, the cleaned up wet waste would go to local compost plants, the recyclables to recycling units, and material such as multi-layered packaging, low-quality plastic bags or any polymer that cannot be recycled infinitely, to the waste-to-energy plant. That should leave little to be dumped into the stinky, hazardous and overflowing landfills, one of which killed two people during a garbage avalanche last year.

All this, stipulated the MSW Rules, was to be done within “a period not later than one year from the date of notification of these rules.” It took almost two years and a rap from the Delhi high court for the authorities in Delhi to notify the bylaws, a roadmap for implementation, this January. The still bigger challenge, as always, is enforcing the rules.

Time is not on our side.


    Shivani Singh leads the Delhi Metro team for Hindustan Times. A journalist for two decades, she writes about cities and urban concerns. She has reported extensively on issues of governance, administrative and social reforms, and education.

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