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HomeGrassrootsGenerally a scorned lot, rag-pickers eke out a living collecting waste

Generally a scorned lot, rag-pickers eke out a living collecting waste

Seerat Bashir profiles the hard lives of rag-pickers in Kashmir, who are representative of the community all over India

Mohamad Usman, living in a slum in the HMT area of north Srinagar, has been a rag-picker for the past nine years. “We gather trash for 11 to 12 hours a day, sometimes even longer. We collect the waste from many locations, such as homes, hotels, construction sites and vegetable stands,” he says. He loads the trash into the container on his three-wheeled cycle rickshaw, and takes it back to the colony.

Bags of trash collected by rag pickers.

Salman, another rag-picker who lives in the slum colony at Dr Ali Jan Road, Soura Srinagar, says used plastic bottles, aluminium cans and cardboard packaging material are among the waste that people like him pick up. 

India generates an estimated 65 million tonnes of rubbish annually, and there are over 4 million rag-pickers in the country. Though safai saathis (mostly women) assist in organised waste collection in most Indian cities, for the most part, rag-pickers aren’t eligible for minimum wage, health insurance, social security, or even the most basic safety gear. They work in hazardous and unhygienic conditionsto render yeoman service in lessening the environmental load of inappropriately disposed waste.

Approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide, of which 6.3 billion tonnes are discarded. One million plastic drinking bottles are bought worldwide each minute. Just 9 per cent of all plastic manufactured has been recycled to date. A new study estimates that 53 million tonnes of plastic will be present in our rivers, lakes and oceans by 2030.

Ragpickers like Usman and Salman collect various types of waste, such as plastic, paper, glass and metal, from public areas, dustbins and marketplaces, and recycle it. By preventing these items from ending up in landfills, streams and other natural ecosystems, they play a very important role in environment protection.

Piles of cardboard collected by rag pickers in the HMT slum colony in Srinagar.

Ashiyana Begum (40), and her husband, who are both rag-pickers, live at the HMT Colony, with their two children. Ashiyana now goes out to gather trash only when times are specially tough, as she has other responsibilities at home. “My husband is working to see that our two children are educated at a private school, because we want them to have good lives; we don’t want them to be rag-pickers like us,” she says.

Usman has been providing for a family of five from his earnings. “The end of May to the end of December is when we are the busiest, picking up the most trash,” he says. “Despite the difficulties, I have managed to provide the bare necessities for my family and pay for the education of my three children,” says Salman.

Each rag-picker gathers between 70 and 80 kilograms of trash, according to Salman. They bring the waste to open spaces near their huts, and segregate it by type – waste cardboard, plastic, aluminium cans, and miscellaneous items. “We never know what’s in the trash. Sometimes we’re pricked by needles, or scratched by blades. But we keep going, because if we don’t, no one else will,” he says. “Yet, people do not respect us because of the work we do. And that upsets us the more than the challenges,” Salman rues.

(The writer is a young journalist based in Srinagar.)