For a 16-year-old working as a waster picker in Noida, the Covid-19 pandemic has raised fears of contracting the virus through his profession. He and six others employed as waste pickers collect and separate waste, including used masks and gloves, from Jal Vayu Vihar in Sector 25 – with their bare hands.
“We have not been provided gloves, masks or sanitisers. Some individuals had given us single-use gloves… We deal with waste from around 250 houses every day, we might contract coronavirus too. We repeatedly ask people to segregate their waste and put used masks and gloves in a separate packet and inform us. But they don’t…,” he said, adding that he collects waste from 30 buildings and earns Rs 100-Rs 150 a day.
Anxiety peaked among waste pickers after some residents in the colony had tested positive. Sonu (32) said, “Even if I don’t want to pick up waste from a house where a Covid case has been detected, I don’t have an option.”
Workers said they cannot wear plastic gloves as they tear easily while reusable gloves cost around Rs 150 – a price not all can afford. While Sonu wore a cloth mask, it kept falling off: “I bought it two months ago, it has become loose.”
The seven workers are from West Bengal and live in Barola Village, Sector 49. After collecting waste, they spend an hour segregating it into piles – some of which can be sold to recycling companies.
Sonu said, “Most of our revenue comes from plastic, paper and glass bottles. We dump medical waste into the discard pile. We take the waste to our godown in Sector 49, where the scrap dealer pays us for the day. I usually make around Rs 250-Rs 300 a day. Before the lockdown, it was Rs 350-Rs 400.”
He is the only earning member in his family and sends money to his wife and daughter every month.
AVM Pradeep Kumar, chairman of the Jal Vayu Vihar RWA, said the society has provided staff with face shields and gloves. But waste pickers maintained that they were given only to sanitation workers, not to them.
Kumar said: “We have tried giving them gloves previously, but many don’t wear them… there are areas to wash hands in the society.”
Vijay Rawal, Project Engineer (Public Health), Noida Authority said, “Since they are unorganised workers, the onus is not on the society to provide them with anything. There is no authority who has this responsibility. However, if anyone demands it from us, we will provide them with the required items.”
A similar situation prevailed in other colonies in Noida, where many waste pickers belong to the unorganised sector. While some workers have received sanitisers from individuals, Tarun Sarkar (35), who earns Rs 100-150 daily, did not.
“I do not know what a sanitiser is or what it is used for. I will be able to take precautions only if people give me gear. We cannot afford it ourselves. It’s almost as if poor people are immune to disease,” he said.
Sonu, too, has run out of sanitiser. “I invested a huge portion of my savings every month on sanitisers… I don’t plan on buying one now,” he said.
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