The SWaCH Story | How waste pickers continued work during lockdown

The SWaCH Story | How waste pickers continued work during lockdown

The announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown evoked a range of feelings from panic to anxiety, from  frustration to relief (at the possibility of working from home). What united most people, however, was fear; the fear of not knowing the implications of getting infected, what quarantine would look like and most importantly what were the probable economic fallouts of the lockdown. While these were real fears, the fear and anxiety associated with the lockdown increased manifold for workers belonging to the informal sector and for those whose positions were already precarious prior to the lockdown.

The waste pickers of SWaCH – a waste collection cooperative were one such category of workers. These were frontline workers who neither had the luxury to ponder over the lockdown nor the choice to work from home. Waste collection is an essential service, which assumes even more importance during an epidemic. Add to this, the fact that most waste pickers depend for their daily survival almost solely on waste collection and it is anybody’s guess as to what choices and options they have even in an extraordinary situation such as an unprecedented lockdown during a pandemic.

This piece is an attempt to give voice and visibility to these waste pickers, who continued to work in the eye of the storm, in the city of Pune, which was one of the worst hit cities in the country. Through conversations and interactions with waste pickers across the city, we have tried to document diverse narratives with many common and some unique threads. Many of these narratives are deeply heartening as they demonstrate the compassion and solidarity that human beings are capable of, while some are indicative of the polarisation that still continues to divide our society and of the battles ahead. The narratives of the waste pickers bring to light the similar yet unique threads that run through and bind them together as one collective voice of an essential yet invisible community.

A Sense of Responsibility

The overarching feeling that most waste pickers working in the SWaCH collective expressed was one of responsibility for the city’s maintenance and cleanliness. During the time of an epidemic of any sort, most people tend to care only for their own wellbeing or for that of their loved ones. Waste pickers have a higher possibility of getting infected because of the waste material they handle and the contact they tend to have with others. They therefore have the most to lose and the most to fear when it comes to infection or transmitting the infection to their families. However, every single SWaCH member that we spoke with expressed the concern that if they did not go to work during such a time, how would the city function.

Anna Naiknavare, a resident of Taljai who works in Dhanakwadi, says, “The city depends on me. If I don’t go to work, piles of waste will accumulate in societies and on the streets, and that can’t be very good for stopping the spread of the virus. In the end, I feel we are all in this together. Everyone has to do their part, and I have to accept this as my part and play it to the best of my ability.”

Girija Kasbe, also from Taljai, expresses the same emotion, “We all have families. I myself have a husband and three sons, and we are all working in the same business. So, yes, of course there are times when we get worried or scared, but we have this responsibility of making sure that waste is properly disposed of. It is an essential service and I am proud to be a part of this essential service delivery mechanism.”

A member from Lokmanya Nagar in Kothrud, Dilip Sopan Bhadakwad says, “There have been problems, especially while going to work. So many times there was no transport, but there was no thinking twice about this. I did not take a single day off during the entire lockdown period. We cater to almost 200-250 houses. We cannot imagine just stopping work.”

Members from the Aundh ward, Surkeha Lala Gaikwad, Rebecca Kedari and Pinky Sonawane, are of the same opinion. Rebecca Kedari says, “What’s there to think? We are responsible for the city’s cleanliness and upkeep; public health is also dependent on cleanliness, no? So even if we are not sure how this pandemic relates with cleanliness, we can’t think of putting up our feet.” This narrative is a unifying factor across the different wards where SWaCH waste pickers work.

Asha Kamble – a member from the Hadapsar ward, who works at the Uruli landfill says, “I would have preferred to work in a society and I was about to get work there as well, but I got work in a society almost at the same time that the lockdown was announced so it wasn’t to be. Someone has to do this work, if it has to come down to us, we might as well do it properly.”

What is remarkable is that along with this sense of responsibility, the waste pickers express a deep sense of pride in the work they do and recognize its importance, irrespective of how society treats them or how they are viewed by people. Coupled with this pride is a matter of fact attitude that sees them through this difficult period as they continue to work relentlessly and in the face of considerable odds on a daily basis.

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