Ideas and Action for a Better India
Rag pickers or kabadiwallas play a very important role in the environmental sustainability of our country. They are informal workers or rather invisible workers who perform a very important job, waste segregation. All the waste that we generate at home most typically goes into one garbage bin. This household waste is collected daily by the neighbourhood waste collector who is appointed by the building or resident welfare association. All the accumulated waste is then collected from the neighbourhood by the municipality in a van and taken to a landfill for disposal by burning or dumping. For the wont of time or the lack of it, most of the waste goes for disposal without being segregated. But, do we realise that there might be value in this waste? Most research studies show that at least 60% of household waste is recyclable! The rag pickers work on the principle of “maximum recycling, minimum waste”. They find value in waste. They retrieve the “useful waste” from discarded waste and recycle it either by converting them into raw material or by selling it to traders. They are not officially employed or recognised by the municipality, but they earn by selling the recyclable material from the garbage. But these rag pickers have a raw deal in sorting out the garbage because they have deal with unsorted waste which might have shards of glass or metal or other sharp objects. This is a health hazard for the rag pickers most of whom are women and children.
India, more specifically Mumbai, can benefit immensely from the rag pickers’ services. In Mumbai, there is no strict enforcement of waste segregation into wet and dry waste even though the municipality’s laws advocate that. This is where the rag pickers can help by becoming an intermediary in transporting household waste and segregating it. Let’s take the example of the Zabbaleen community in Cairo who have been performing this process of segregation for more than 80 years. They collect waste from every household in the neighbourhood, take it home on donkey back and segregate the waste to finally sort out the organic, recyclable and non-recyclable waste. The organic waste is fed to pigs and the inorganic recyclable waste is again sorted into 16 types. Each Zabbaleen collects a nominal fee from each household that he is serving. The Zabbaleen also earn by selling the recyclable waste to small scale industries or they make raw material/handicrafts from the recyclable waste like paper, plastic, wood, metal or glass. Zabbaleen is the only rag picker community in the world who have the know-how as to how to segregate and recycle waste. Some of them even have small scale industries equipped with proper machinery for recycling waste and making handicrafts. But the Zabbaleen, like our kabadiwallas were unorganised. They faced severe threat to their livelihood during natural calamities like the swine flu when their pigs were culled for hygiene purposes. Government initiatives like the privatization of solid waste management took a toll on these workers as they were unable to match up with the modern infrastructure. In turn, the private waste collection companies faced the issue of inaccessibility. Their trucks were not able to reach narrow lanes/streets and the waste bins were placed far from residential areas so waste started piling up on the streets. Thus, the services of the Zabbaleen proved indispensable in the door-to-door collection and transportation of waste.
The case of the rag pickers (be it the kabadiwallas or the Zabbaleen) raises a few burning questions that need to be addressed: