India is a strange country. On one side we have the spotlessly clean malls, high profile residential complexes, shining chrome and glass office buildings and on the other side, reflected in the same chrome and glass is the stink of defecation, mess of the slums and huge piles of garbage collected from the upmarket areas and dumped unceremoniously in heaps.
And within these heaps of garbage are human scavengers and rag-pickers isolating the garbage into the usable and the useless. So much for the slogans of reduce, reuse and recycle. This scavenging community that lives on the edge of life and death every day is the saviour of the day. A sight of a 12-14 year old girl carrying a sack of her size on her back and a prodding stick in hand, turning the garbage up and down to find something of value is a very common sight in India. This girl may work throughout the afternoons in the hot sun, inhaling the stink that seems to be the only fragrance of life that she knows and would ever know.
Typically her day starts early morning in the dark (before dawn) when she has to relieve herself before the males rise. Then she goes back to her make shift shelter made of plastic and jute bags, pieces of asbestos and thin bamboo to figure out what she can do to help her mother, perhaps in the same business as hers, to “cook” some sort of concoction which may pass for breakfast for the family. This “food” is mostly a appalling watery liquid of some cereal flour and salt. Once in a while if they are in good luck, they may be able to have some hand made Indian bread with raw onion or a paste of cooked lentil flours. The food is cooked on a smoky fire made by burning variety of fuels ranging from paper, wood, dried dung cakes, coal and sometimes kerosene. Soon after she would leave for the garbage piles dragging her filthy sack. Surely, there is no concept of a daily bath and changing of clothes is just a luxury.
She would then toil in the hot Indian Sun throughout the day trying to collect broken plastic pens, cans, metal cans, bottles and all possible variants of garbage that may be able to fetch her some value. In the afternoon, she may perhaps help herself with a small piece of Indian bread or a left over scrap tied carefully in her filthy dress. Or she may buy herself a “vada pav” (A kind of burger with just bread and fried potato balls, generously sprinkled with red chilly powder. Now is the time for her to segregate her spoils.
Once she is done, she now needs to go to the guy who usually buys her scrap and if she is lucky she may drive a hard bargain of Rs 20 -30 ( about 40 -60 US cents in today’s value). On an especially great day she can hope for Rs 50 (About a dollar). She is smart enough to take the money in small change, hide some part away and give the remaining to her mother who would the buy the necessary ingredients for their next meal.
This community, perhaps about a million strong in urban India (Give or take a few thousands. Who cares for their lives any ways!), ensures steady supply of scrap to the unorganized waste recycling sector that recycles about 5000 tons of waste every day (the number may vary depending on how it is arrived at. I have a simple calculation – 1 million x 5 kg per day on an average).
This scavenging community is directly responsible for cleaning up 5000 tons of garbage every day! ie about 18 million tons a year ! And all this while they lead an existence tottering on the leading edge of perpetual poverty!
Of course this does not mean that we should let them keep contributing their 18 million tons while they worm their way through their lives. The situation can surely be improved through innovative and ambitious projects by social entrepreneurs such as Respose.
At Respose, we are trying to organize these rag pickers and scavengers in self help groups. We are trying to improve their living standards and work environment. Respose is working out a model that promises to lift these people out of their poverty and convert this entire unorganized waste management sector into an organized industry. Instead of waste disposal, we are promoting the idea of resposal – responsible disposal. The grand aim is to make give these people their right place as the heroes of waste management