Addressing The Concerns of Informal Waste Pickers: A Call For Intervention

Just like healthcare and sanitation workers, Informal Waste pickers also deserve special support and protection from the Government.

Shalaka | July 13, 2020

Addressing the concerns of Informal waste pickers: A call for intervention

  Akbar, Basti Suraksha Manch

Rahees Khan, a waste picker in Delhi says that “Currently, the major necessity is not just food but also the cash as many are having problems with gas connections and the basic needs of children and women in the family. My mother got Rs 500 in her bank account but we cannot withdraw the cash because the bank is 10 km away from our place and till when will we be dependent on this one-time cash transfer? Yes, I am frightened because the Police are humiliating and beating up people especially those who are poor for stepping out and this further leads to discrimination and stigma against the poor.”

Due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, informal waste-pickers are playing a crucial role in our fight the pandemic as they are at the frontline of managing our waste and are extremely vulnerable to contracting this virus. It is important to remember that informal waste pickers earn their daily income by selling dry waste and recyclables to scrap dealers but due to the ongoing crisis in the country, they are forced to leave the collected waste at the shops/ dhalaos without collecting remuneration.

There are an estimated 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort, and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain. The sector, growing at a fast pace, closely deals with solid, sewage, hazardous, wet, medical, or even electronic waste. Consequently, it poses serious occupational hazards alongside providing huge environmental and public health benefits.

The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 statutorily recognise the role of waste pickers in solid waste management. Rule 11(c) especially provides that “state policies and strategies should acknowledge the primary role played by the informal sector of waste pickers, waste collectors and recycling industry in reducing waste and provide broad guidelines regarding integration of waste pickers or informal waste collectors in the waste management system.” This implies that waste pickers are not “outside the system” but very much an integral and instrumental part of it as well as the waste management system of the nation. However, they still lack formal recognition and legal and social protection from their very own system, leaving many waste pickers outside of the social security spectrum.

It is to be noted that most waste pickers belong to the socially and economically deprived castes and are already on the margins of existence. Many of these workers are poor, with pregnant women, old parents, and small children in their families. The women waste-pickers majorly sort and segregate the waste collected by men but their hard-labour intensive work remains as unpaid and unrecognised family labour.

Many have lost their livelihood as they were not ‘allowed’ to work due to the lockdown. A substantial number of the informal waste pickers have lost their earnings due to pandemic and lockdown. Adding to this, as a large number of people live in extremely crowded bastis, have no access to soap and water which means that practicing handwashing and physical/ social distancing is a luxury that many cannot afford and hence these practices which are key precautions against COVID- 19 are difficult to carry out.

Working under the current conditions of a Global Pandemic, their livelihood brings them in close contact with infected waste, often without any protection. This makes them extremely vulnerable to contracting the virus. In situations where the Central Govt, all the State Governments, ULBs, Municipalities, and Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) are not supporting them financially, they are not only losing their livelihood but in the absence of any other support, are spiraling into a life of hunger and deprivation.

According to various circulars issued by the State Governments, we can say that-
a) Only in Raipur, the DM announced that waste pickers will be provided with ration.
b) States have taken initiatives for BPL families, daily wage labourers, construction workers, and street vendors in terms of cash/ income transfers. No state has mentioned waste pickers in this. If the Government would have made this immediate cash transfer to include informal waste pickers in the list, it will add some value to the relief.
c) No State has recognised or issued any circular regarding the waste pickers’ livelihood and this is keeping them away from the livelihood benefits. The lack of consideration towards the inclusion of this particular livelihood makes the initiatives/ schemes of government deficient.
d) No Government has provided them with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like protective gear for work (masks, gloves, and boots) and sanitation kits (soap and sanitiser), sanitary pads, and towels. Apart from this, there is no health insurance cover for them.

Indha Mahoor from Hasirudala Bangalore says that “For both the relief and recovery processes, we have to start everything from scratch as we cannot see any market and protection for waste pickers in the near future. They are the most vulnerable section of the urban poor today. Now, since even the employers and NGOs are running out of cash, only the emergency support from the State and Local Government can help us survive this.”

It cannot be denied that the informal waste pickers are at the frontline of defense against the spread of coronavirus. Just like healthcare and sanitation workers, they also deserve special support and protection from the Government. Their consideration of this matter would change the outlook and condition of informal waste pickers and their families, and alleviate their suffering in these difficult times.

This article is an extract from the report ‘Seeking Justice for the Informal Sector During the COVID-19 Lockdown: An analysis of government policy for informal sector workers during the nationwide lockdown’ published by IGSSS. For a detailed analysis, please visit the complete report.

Shalaka is a Social designer and currently working as a coordinator of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign- a collective of civil society organisations, activists and researchers, aiming to envision a just, equitable and sustainable city. She is a contributor to the report ‘Seeking Justice for the Informal Sector During the COVID-19 Lockdown: An analysis of government policy for informal sector workers during the nationwide lockdown’.