Waste pickers of Ghazipur

For Subaida Bibi and many of her neighbours,the day begins at 4 am.

Written by Nandini Thilak | Published: May 13, 2012 2:47 am

For Subaida Bibi and many of her neighbours,the day begins at 4 am. That is when the early risers among this small community of waste pickers in Ghazipur emerge from their jhuggis to begin the slow climb up the Ghazipur landfill,the smouldering heap of garbage on which nearly 600 waste pickers in the area depend on for a living.

Though figures vary,it is estimated that more than 50,000 people who belong to the informal sector of waste pickers and sorters clear waste generated daily by Delhi residents free of charge. But after years of faceless,rewardless existence as rag pickers,Subaida Bibi and others like her in Ghazipur and other communities of waste pickers in the capital are now a part of Safai Sena,an organisation of waste pickers.

Started with the help of a Delhi-based environmental group,Chintan,which works among waste pickers in the NCR,Safai Sena now has over 4,500 members. They carry identity cards that recognise them as NDMC or MCD-approved waste pickers,saving them the harassment they once frequently endured from police and RWAs alike.

Like most waste pickers across the Capital,Subaida Bibi entered the profession a migrant with little choices and a family to support.

Jai Prakash Chaudhary also took up waste-picking in search of better wages after odd jobs in the city. Chaudhary is the secretary of Safai Sena. He was a candidate in the just-concluded MCD elections to the Trilokpuri seat. A migrant from Bihar,Chaudhary says,“The work we do reduces the carbon footprint,but people dismiss us as koodawallahs. Now some of that has changed.”

While the members in the MCD areas are recognised as volunteers,in some NDMC areas such as Pandara Road and Tilak Nagar,Safai Sena has signed a contract with the body to engage in door-to-door collection of waste.

“Safai Sena was formed as a way for waste pickers to put their problems forward themselves. Earlier,when we used to speak to officials on their behalf,they would ask,‘Are you a waste picker? Do you know their problems?’ Now Subaida and others represent themselves in front of government agencies as well as national organisations of waste pickers,” says Vikas Vishal of Chintan.

For waste pickers,the group has come as a break from years of harassment. “The police would pick on us thinking we were Bangladeshis,” Subaida says.

Though improvements have come,work continues to be treacherous for those who tredge through the city’s waste in search of recyclables.

“There is danger because parts of the landfill are always on fire. You never know when it might give way under your feet,” says Asma Bibi,Subaida’s friend,who makes the trip in the 9 pm shift and comes down by dawn. “I go with a torch fitted,” she says,pointing at her forehead.

A new danger — waste-to-energy plants aggressively promoted by the administration — is now threatening their livelihood.

“The waste in our dumps is not of the quality to burn. All that is of a quality that can

be burned is recyclable. If these are going to be burned,what options do we have?” says Kasim Ali,a waste picker from Ghazipur.

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