Dignity Not Wasted

A Pune waste pickers’ organisation is helping change lives

Written by Prajakta Hebbar | New Delhi | Published: June 23, 2013 5:09 am

A Pune waste pickers’ organisation is helping change lives

It was the early ’70s. A 10-year-old Usha Pawar ran barefoot across the street on a hot summer day. Wearing a frock and clutching a large empty plastic sack,she jumped over several potholes and stopped abruptly in front of an overflowing community garbage bin. As she sized up the gigantic bin,she jumped nimbly over a scooter parked nearby and lunged inside the stinking pile of rubbish. Taking no notice of the stench,the flies buzzing around her head or the squishy stuff she stepped on,she neatly lay open her plastic sack in the garbage,and rummaged through the mess,collecting bits of paper,glass bottles,iron objects and wooden scrap. She dug deep,her hands elbow-deep in the mess,as she scoured for the precious bits. After about an hour,she emerged from the trash can,her plastic sack full,her clothes dirty,but her face smiling with satisfaction.

Almost four decades later,Pawar,who turned 50 this year,still works as a garbage collector. But things are different now. Her four daughters are married,her son attends college and she and her husband are comfortable in their home in Lohia Nagar,Pune. Above all,she has a sense of dignity in her occupation. She wears a uniform,carries an ID and uses a trolley to pick trash. She attributes this change to being part of a waste picker’s collective called Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP).

“We used to be treated like dogs before. People would think that we were thieves. Goons would harass us,police would turn a blind eye,” says Pawar,who joined the Pune-based collective 20 years ago,at the time of its inception. “Now,people look at our ID cards and trolleys,and know that we are doing good work,” she says.

At the office of the KKPKP in the New Timbre Market,Bhawani Peth in Pune,Atul Kadam,an earnest young man sits behind a large wooden desk. He looks after the day-to-day administration of the organisation and acts as a bridge between the staff and the members. The furniture and the walls are damp,as a result of the downpour in the city,but Kadam smiles as he shuts a steel almirah,full of documents and folders.

“This is our trade union. It brings together waste pickers,itinerant waste buyers,waste collectors and other informal recyclers. We recover,collect,categorise and sell scrap such as corrugated board,paper,plastics,metal and glass for recycling. We also provide garbage collection,composting and related waste management services. Our members are self-employed workers,” he says.

With no other skills or education,waste-pickers in the city are forced to endure bad working conditions and long working hours for around Rs 500 a month. KKPKP estimates that half of these women contribute at least 50 per cent of household income. “Scrap collection is not recognised as work,nor scrap collectors as workers in Maharashtra. That is why waste pickers have no work guarantee or regular wages or state benefits,” he says.

The 6,000-6,500 members registered with the KKPKP are entitled to many benefits,besides protection against hooliganism,police threats and ill-treatment by citizens. The members have a medical insurance of

Rs 5,000 per year and a life insurance policy that pays their next of kin a sum of Rs 30,000 (in case of natural death) or Rs 75,000 (in case of accidental death),among other benefits. The KKPKP also assists their members with their children’s education.

Lakshmi Adsul,40,is wearing a polka-dotted overcoat over her sari,as she walks in her bright pink plastic chappals through a city that is drenched in rain. Taking a blue scarf and tying it around her face and head,she pulls out a large green wheel barrow-like cart and walks through the lanes of Bhim Nagar in Pune. “I go to the society and collect their trash. I separate the wet trash from the dry one,and collect the latter. At the end of every month,I sell it to scrap vendors in the city,” she explains the process,as she strolls down the lane at a leisurely pace,yelling,“Kachra aahe ka…”

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