The COVID-19 Impact on Waste Pickers in Delhi

The COVID-19 Impact on Waste Pickers in Delhi

  • .
  • by Bharati Chaturvedi
  • 18 Jun, 2020

“I went to my sister’s place,” Rama says. “She told me, ‘I have two kilos of rice left. Let’s just divide it up.’” That’s what they did. Divided up the rice, cooked it with salt and made it last for 2 days. Now, when I called her up, she was brewing tea leaves for breakfast. “What to do? There’s nothing left,” she sighed. Rama picks trash on one of Delhi’s largest landfills.

In her gully (slum-alley), the kids are all being fed tea for lunch and dinner. “Lal chai-what to do?” Rama’s neighbour, Shanti, tells us. What she means is boiled tea without milk and sugar. One of the problems with this, they explain over the course of our various telephonic conversations, is that the tea runs out of colour and flavour when you keep on boiling the same tea leaves again. Truth be told, the children of Bhalswa landfill are drinking boiled water for meals.

These are the same children who excel in science and math—the focus of Chintan’s No Child in Trash Programme here. Two years ago, a child invented a cooler for the summer, made entirely of the trash from the landfill nearby, so his mother wouldn't sweat so much while cooking his lunch. Today, she can’t sweat, because there’s nothing to cook. A community kitchen the chief minister promised hasn't yet started—nobody has seen this scale of crisis, and they’re struggling with relief.

Meanwhile, there’s curfew. The police is not letting anyone out of their homes. It’s the most desolate you’ll ever see this city of 25 million plus. Zoom is the new Chintan office, where dozens of people are collecting donations to create ration kits. A kit will have enough rice, wheat, oil and a few spices for a family of 6, if they eat modestly, but nothing to spare. There’s soap too, and masks. School students, interns, retired folks, former colleagues—they are all making donations. While one team tracks this, another is getting permissions to step out to distribute the kits. Two colleagues are persuading stores to let them buy in bulk, assuring them they are no hoarders or profiteers.

Waste pickers who offer formal services can hope to work, Chintan managed to get the requisite documents. But they won’t get to sell the recyclables they collect, leaving them without significant incomes. Those who work at landfills, or operate in dumpsters and other informal spaces, are entirely jobless. They have nothing, not even the money for food, which they buy every few days, as they sell waste.

Most Indian waste pickers are experiencing COVID-19 like this. Jobless.

Bordering Delhi and Haryana, Kusumpur Pahari was ravaged beyond hunger. Located on the border of one of India’s most ancient forests earlier, this slum began asking for a basic human right to survive the pandemic: water. It had none. The government ignored its plea.

“How are we supposed to survive this disease? They’re saying wash your hands. But with what?” asked Ram Agya, an anguished father of two. A twitter campaign by Chintan and Safai Sena resulted in a response by the government: There are hundreds of places to wash hands, use those. Problem was, there was nothing within walking distance.

“The police are beating us if we go looking for water,” said a despondent Rekha, on a video the community made. Eventually, using phones and videos, the story was shared with The Indian Express. And then, under pressure, water finally reached these folks.

Most waste pickers also experience COVID-19 like this. Marginalised.

They often live in unrecognised slums (yes, the worst housing is also stratified). This means they need to fight harder to ride out this pandemic. “Here we are, serving all these people all these years, keeping their localities spotless,” says Rokhan, a waste picker in New Delhi. “Don't you think we are right in asking for their help now? We also have to keep our children safe.” He’s been asking people whose waste he collects, to help. Some give him food every day, others some money. Some have told him it’s also hard for them. “I know everyone won’t help us, but I know some people are decent. And some understand that if we don't show up tomorrow, the disease may become worse for everyone,” Rokhan points out. “I’m seeing who is what kind of person—it’ll be clear now.”

Tips to Score High on the Rokhan Test:

  • Be civil to waste collectors. Tell them you know of their conditions, and you are available to help them in ways they need.
  • Give them dry rations to cook
  • Give them soap
  • Help them wash their hands when they finish their work near your home
  • Give them money, even small amounts help
  • Segregate your waste, compost the wet fraction
  • Hand over dry waste, without sharp objects
  • If anyone is ill or even quarantined, don't hand over waste. It can infect. Follow municipal advisories.
  • Talk to your neighbours to do the same.
  • Ask the waste collectors what specific problems they face. Help iron it out.

(The author is Founder & Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group)

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