Even after months of coronavirus-induced-lockdown saw waste pickers working around the clock with other frontline workers, some in Bengaluru continue to stigmatise the workforce, the workers themselves as well as other stakeholders in the sector have revealed.
Dhanalakshmi has been among several others active in collecting and segregating waste from households. “Wastepicking is tiresome as my day starts at 6 am and my work extends beyond noon when the heat is at its peak,” she said.
However, the 35-year-old Bengaluru native added that she tries to avoid any kind of interaction with people while she is at work, as do many of her colleagues. “We avoid interactions at work because more often it ends up in an altercation or a fight. A sense of jealousy among people in the same sector on someone earning more than the other is also rampant, even though it is done through sincere effort and hard work,” she said.
Asked how people behaved with her, she said, “Some in the city are indifferent to us while others are outright rude.”
At the same time, Velu (40), who collects waste from houses and streets and dumps them at a dry waste collection centre, said she has been active in this profession irrespective of the weather or his personal situation. “My work carries on whether its peak summer or rains. Sometimes to supplement my income, I also work as a coolie for loading and unloading,” he said.
He said he believed his work was really important for a city like Bengaluru. “This city generates thousands of kilos of waste everyday which has to be collected, sorted and recycled. This process ensures that the waste does not harm the people living here and it gives the city a cleaner look,” he said, adding that despite toiling hours to keep the city filth-free, he can’t escape being viewed from a stigmatised lens. “Not everyone thinks of us or about our work in the same way as we do,” he said.
Like Dhanalakshmi and Velu, the Karnataka capital is home to over 22,500 waste pickers. According to the local civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city generates nearly 5,757 metric tonnes of solid waste per day.
Hasiru Dala, a voluntary organisation that works closely with waste-pickers, noted that people involved in this work helps the municipal authorities save up to Rs 840 million by collecting and transporting recyclables from the junk. “Despite being a critical part of the city’s solid waste management ecosystem, the waste pickers and their families suffer a lot of hardships and challenges,” the NGO noted.
“The government needs to ensure that waste pickers in the city are encouraged to have a sense of integrity and dignity by making them socially acceptable,” Nalini Shekar of Hasiru Dala told indianexpress.com.
Recently, a formative research conducted by BBC Media Action in the city found a high level of stigma in Bengaluru residents against informal waste pickers. Nearly 55 per cent of respondents described them as “dirty in appearance” while 56 per cent believed they “shouldn’t be allowed in building complexes and societies”. The study further found women waste pickers were more vulnerable as they faced abuse by men in the neighbourhoods and violence at home.
BBC Media Action’s communication initiative ‘Invaluables’ is part of the larger Saamuhika Shakti program, a collective of social impact organisations in Bengaluru including CARE India, Hasiru Dala, LabourNet, Save the Children, Social Alpha, The Nudge Foundation, and Water Aid. Those behind the initiative hope to change the general perceptions about waste picking and informal waste pickers in the city.