Flowers in the Dust: Photo Exhibition and Seminar, at Jawaharlal Nehru University

When Kausiki Sarma, a self taught photographer working with the Aman Trust, decided to document the lives of waste pickers in Delhi in 2011-12, she was apprehensive at first. The stench of garbage which she could muffle with a kerchief pervaded their daily lives. Her apprehension was not misplaced; people treated her as an outsider and did not open up to her easily. But after sharing numerous cups of tea and food with them, they started telling her their stories. The result of this interaction was a set of 30 photographs which was compiled into a series entitled “Flowers in the Dust” which portrays them not as victims but survivors of extreme neglect. Aman Trust in collaboration with the Women’s Studies Programme of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) exhibited this series at the University in an attempt to engage the student community with the issues faced by the waste picking community. The exhibition was coupled with a seminar series, spread over two days, which looked at the politics of unorganised labour, gender and migration in the context of growing informalisation of labour. Though the market is cited as the logic behind the deregulation of labour, we cannot overlook the role of the state, which is the largest employer of informal labour, in perpetuating informality. The series saw a dialogue between the students, researchers, labour unions, and members of the waste picking community. This report is an attempt to bring together the different issues that were highlighted in the seminar series and present the debates that ensued.

Children at Work
The exhibition was inaugurated by Salman, a 13 year old waste picker from Rohini, who helps his family in cleaning, segregating and selling recyclable waste. Salman is enthusiastic about going to school but no school would take him, citing his advanced age and the nature of the work he is engaged in. In 2001 waste picking was included among the hazardous occupations banned under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, and affected the livelihood of children like Salman. In Delhi alone there are 60,000 children working as waste pickers, and according to a study done by the National Labour Institute it is the fourth largest occupation of the street children in Delhi. Most of these children either drop out from school, or have not been to one. Their labour hence is in direct violation of the Right to Education Act. These children are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness as they do not have the means to acquire any other professional skills. Coming in direct contact with the toxic waste, they suffer from many health issues, and some of them get addicted to glue and other drugs which they take to block off the stench emanating from the garbage dumps.

Unorganised and Vulnerable
Jamal Kidwai, of the Aman trust, pinpointed the key issues concerning the waste picking community in Delhi. Considered to be the lowest in the hierarchy of urban informal occupations, waste picking involves a large number of women and children. A large chunk of the waste pickers are low caste, illiterate and unskilled migrants. Kidwai stated that out of an estimated 3 to 6 lakh rag pickers in Delhi, 80% were Bengalis largely belonging to the Muslim community. Caste hierarchy is deeply entrenched in this occupation; the lower the caste, the dirtier the work. Because of their marginalised identity, citizenship is very crucial for these people, and they actively reinforce all the democratic values by participating in elections, and carry all the citizenship markers like voter identity cards etc. Yet they are subjected to systematic police harassment.

Devedar, an NGO worker working with the waste pickers, elaborated on the communities’ squalid living conditions, and the nature of harassment waste they underwent. From the land mafia to the government officials, exploitation is entrenched at every level. The waste picker’s move to the city in search of a livelihood is based on the information provided by relatives and friends in their villages. The migration, however, is facilitated by a subcontractor who provides the migrant worker with a jhuggi, water and electricity in the city and pays a monthly hafta to the police. In lieu of these facilities, the waste pickers have to sell their collection to this subcontractor at a reduced rate. This is, as Devedar asserts, a form of bonded labour. As Moushmi Basu (associate professor at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University) reiterated, one has to look at the tag of “illegality” associated with their livelihood. For example, to meet their water requirements they bribe the drivers and the supervisors of the Jal Board water tankers, and steal electricity from the supply lines. The spaces they occupy are illegally controlled (dabangg) by land owners who extort money from them as rent. Their jhuggis, largely made out of inflammable materials, catch fire easily sometimes resulting in burning down of entire colonies. On top of this, the waste pickers are subjected to regular police harassment, and are the first ones to be picked up for questioning in case of a robbery in a colony they go for garbage collection.

Their identity as Bengali Muslims further compounds their problems. In 2003, when Delhi High Court directed the government to identify illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the city and deport them back, the police picked up many waste pickers in spite of them carrying Indian citizenship markers, and deported them to the no man’s land between Bangladesh and India border.

It is appalling in this context to note that no major organised political party has a trade union in this sector. Dharmendra Yadav, general secretary of the All India Kachra Shramik Mahasangh, a waste picker’s association, spoke in detail about the difficulties faced in registering their union despite a strong membership of several thousands. With the ongoing privatisation drive in the country, unionanisation is being discouraged and trade unions are viewed as impediments to industrial progress.

The nature of their profession exposes them to serious health risks. Working without protective gear—such as masks, gloves and boots—while rummaging through putrefying waste, worker’s acquire respiratory, gastro-intestinal and skin infections. Belonging to the unorganised sector, the waste pickers lie outside the ambit of most government social security schemes. However, some efforts are being made by the government to provide welfare benefits to the disadvantaged sections. Recently the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) –a smart card-based cashless government health insurance scheme –was extended to cover the unorganised sector, including the rag pickers. As Basu and Yadav elucidated, these policies fall short in implementation and do not offer substantial benefits to the worker. For e.g., RSBY allows workers access to private clinics which prescribe unnecessary and costly tests. Thus when a person actually needs the insurance cover for a serious ailment he has none left.

Method of Operation
Yadav, described the mechanics of waste collection and disposal According to the MCD estimates, Delhi generates 9,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day and waste pickers play a very important role in the process of waste disposal. However, there is no structured system of municipal solid waste management. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is responsible for 95% of the city, 3% is with the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and 2% with the Cantonment Board. But the responsibility of waste management has never been adequately administered by the civic authorities. It is the waste pickers who largely collect, segregate and transport around 45% of the waste from the garbage dumps to landfills saving the authorities at least 8 lakh rupees just in transportation costs alone.

The waste pickers work with the municipality and the recyclable material traders in an informal arrangement. After door to door collection of the waste, it is segregated into different groups according to type and quality near the neighborhood dhalao (dump/collection centre) or near the place where they live; here the waste is categorised into glass, iron, plastic, newspaper and raddi mal (scrap). There is a small contractor/dealer who lends money to the waste pickers in need, and they in turn have to sell their material to him. He then sells it to a big dealer on profit who then gets the material segregated again and send it to the recycling units.

Privatisation and Waste-to-Energy plants
The privatisation of the door to door collection of solid municipal waste in eight zones of Delhi has put the livelihood of the city’s three lakh waste pickers, or more, in jeopardy by denying them agency. Earlier the waste pickers had to bribe the municipality workers (where the Valmiki community has a monopoly) for permission to enter their localities to collect waste. With the system of door to door garbage collection contracted out to local and multinational operators like Ramky, Jindal, Reliance and Delhi MSW Solutions (who fix rates for the waste materials) now, the waste pickers have to buy the waste from these private players.

Concurrent with privatisation of waste picking, is the proposal to set up waste to energy plants in collaboration with corporate houses. These plants propose to segregate, dry and burn the waste in incinerators to produce electricity. But some reports and studies have shown that the incinerator technology abroad has had a devastating effect on the health of the local populace with an increased incidence of cancer. Even though the waste to energy plants claim that they are not motivated by profits and are concerned about the environment, huge profits are accrued by selling carbon credits and electricity. The Okhla plant run by the Jindal group has drawn flak from Apollo, a neighboring hospital, for polluting the environment with poisonous fumes emitting from its incinerators burning PVC.

Basu urged the audience to look carefully at the politics of displacement and creation of dump sites. The dump sites are most often created near the residential areas of the poor. For e.g. the Bhalswa resettlement colony—where a large number of slum-dwellers were moved as a part of the beautification drive of the capital—borders a landfill. The proximity to the landfill has poisoned the groundwater. This has led to vehement protests by the women residing in the area, and they have filed RTI applications.

Measures Suggested
Several measures were suggested during the discussion to improve the waste picker’s access to garbage. It was recommended that the households should segregate the waste, and that the waste pickers should be organised into co-operatives to collect the waste from door to door ensuring that the non- biodegradable waste is properly recycled. Organic waste can be composted locally at a colony level leaving only the inert waste to be transported to landfills, and the waste pickers could be trained and integrated into this composting process. G. Arunima urged us to look carefully at our notions of filth and who produces it. It is mostly the upper class households which produce most of the non-biodegradable waste.

The Women Migrant Workers
On the second day of the seminar, Basu discussed the issues of gender and migrant labor in the context of increasing informalisation of labour. She said this is a global trend which was not limited to the developing countries. The trend of non-standardisation of work, with a large percentage of the labour force being engaged in temporary or part time work is on the rise even in the developing world. The numbers are alarming in the developing countries as well, with 71% of the labour market in Asia, 72% in Sub Saharan Africa, and 51% in Latin America being informal in nature. According to estimates 93% to 94% of labour market is informalised in India. Parallely in the organised sector, informalisation is taking place with the introduction of contract labour.

In this scenario the most dispensable, as identified by the ‘unbiased’ market, are the women workers. Gender acts as a powerful barrier for women to enter the “spontaneous” market, and the neoliberal discourse denies a space for a discussion on concomitant questions of justice. Basu demonstrated the structural barriers inherent in the market for migrant women workers in Delhi by citing the examples of construction labor and almond industry workers.

The construction industry restricts the entry of women, and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) submitted a statement to the Delhi High Court stating that they do not employ women on worksites. The Gender and Migration Report brought out by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) in 2012, stated that women’s participation in the informal sector in the rural markets has come down (NSSO data). As a consequence, there was an increase in women’s migration to the urban areas where they picked up low skilled jobs in construction and household industries. For e.g. in Karawal Nagar, a hub of migrants in Delhi, while men usually work as beldaars (unskilled worker) in construction sites, women are employed in the almond industry and are in charge of unshelling and packaging of almonds. There is no surety of wages and they usually receive wages on piece rate basis.

A large number of women from Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are employed at construction sites as unskilled labour. Most of these women are landless, or in debt and have migrated to the city for employment. They pay Rs. 9,000 per head to contractors to come and work in the urban areas. Yet these workers have to pay for their accommodation and electricity despite a law which states that the contractor must provide these facilities. Basu alerts us to the invisibility of these women in official records. Most of the women construction workers are not registered and are thus paid less than their male counterparts. Rarely do these women receive their salary directly, and most often it is their fathers or husbands who claim their wages. For the construction workers, there is a separate Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act under which two per cent of the cess paid by the construction companies is put into a welfare fund, and workers can access that for their healthcare needs. Workers, especially women cannot avail this benefit as they are not registered. It is dismaying that approximately Rs 1,200 crore rupees lie unused in fixed deposits with the welfare board, when workers are suffering in the absence of proper and affordable health care facilities.

The seminar series ended with the hope that these issues don’t stay within the four walls of a seminar room. As Rintu, a member of the waste picking community from Shahbad Dairy quipped, “what changes at the end of these talks?” While social science research does not promise instant solutions as much as offer a better understanding of issues, these disadvantaged communities when they take time out to share their experiences have certain expectations from the research community. The student community needs to introspect and analyse how they can contribute towards the betterment of these disadvantaged groups.