A lifeline for recyclers
Pune has a unique waste management system. It relies on individual user fees for waste pickers as opposed to payments being given through a contractor or the municipality. It is extraordinary that despite having a total of 4,284 Covid cases and 226 deaths in the city (as on May 21), close to 850,000 homes are still being served by 3,500 waste pickers (80 per cent of whom are Dalit women from poor backgrounds). “They have all been turning up for work regardless of the threat. If they didn’t come, the waste collection system would collapse in the city,” says Laxmi Narayan, co-founder of SWaCH, India’s first autonomous cooperative of waste pickers.
The Covid virus has been known to survive on different surfaces for different lengths of time. The threat this poses to waste pickers is evident. SWaCH, along with Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a 10,000- strong trade union in Pune, have been instrumental in handing out PPEs, and teaching the waste pickers how to use and dispose of it. The two organisations have also provided detergent for the daily sanitisation of masks and gloves worn by waste pickers (sterilising single-use masks are as crucial as donning them correctly). “We have provided kits up to May for the workers under SWaCH. This is largely through donations. But we would need to supply kits at least for another year,” says Narayan.
There are other problems as well. While the SWaCH model allows waste pickers greater agency to determine their terms of work, in times of Covid it means no guaranteed income from individual users. Waste pickers make their entire living from collecting, sorting, recycling and selling material. At present, Rs 70 is given from residential areas, Rs 40 from slums, and Rs 120 from commercial establishments per month to each waste collector. Since most companies have been closed, and those in slums are themselves struggling to stay afloat, incomes of waste collectors have taken a hit. “We have been handing out ration kits to them. The kits have wheat, rice, cooking oil, jowar, tur dal, chana dal, sugar, chilli, spice, tea leaves, sabudana and jaggery,” says Narayan.
Waste pickers play a vital environmental role which is often overlooked. They segregate large quantities of waste for recycling, and their contribution towards sustainability, sanitation and public health demands that we respect them better. But this is not always the case. The myth that garbage collectors will carry the infection has prompted many homes to ask for weekly collections, or they tend to strew the garbage on pavements outside. Several have turned away waste pickers when they have come to collect salaries. The truth is that a garbage collector is no more a risk than any other individual in the city. “They did not bring the infection to India, it came from those who came from abroad and not through the poor working class,” says Narayan. And yet the poor working classes are those bearing the brunt of it. Without the support of organisations like SWaCH, the plight of this downtrodden, yet dedicated segment of the workforce might go entirely unnoticed.
Courtesy : IT