Waste Pickers Continue Work Despite Covid Scare

Waste Pickers Continue Work Despite Covid Scare

“I am thankful that I have a livelihood and access to work in these difficult times. My brother works as a labourer but is currently unemployed due the COVID-19 lockdown. Our family survives on what my mother and I earn,” says 24-year-old Swati Adagale, a waste picker from Chandan Nagar, Pune.

She along with a group of 57 waste collectors gather waste in Pune’s Wagholi Gram Panchayat area through an initiative under the SWaCH Cooperative. These are the frontline workers who neither have the luxury of mulling over the lockdown nor the possibility of working from home. Waste collection is an essential service, which becomes more important during a pandemic.

“I understand the risks involved in waste collection, especially now. The residents of the Gram Panchayat opposed people coming from Pune to collect waste. But now, they realise the risks involved if the waste management system collapsed and we did not show up. We take precaution and use the PPE kits as advised,” says Swati.

She has been picking waste only for the last two years. Married at 17, she lost her husband at 22. Around that time she worked as an agricultural labourer in a sugarcane plantation. Turned out by her in-laws, she left with her two sons — two years old and six months — and returned to her mother and brother at Ambedkar Nagar slum in Pune’s Chandan Nagar. They supported her then, she is glad she can support them now through her work.

But what the lockdown has hampered the most is the income Swati and many others like her could have earned from the sale of scrap. Swati along with her mother collected waste, usually finishing work by 1 pm. They then segregated and sorted recyclable and non-recyclable items. This they did almost twice or thrice a week but with scrap stores shut due to the lockdown, they lost almost half of their income.

“We had sorted and stocked material in the hope of earning some additional money once the scrap stores re-opened, but that too was stolen,” says Swati. The lack of this extra income means that many are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

COVID-19 has pushed millions of informal sector workers to the brink of poverty in India. They have lost their jobs with no safety nets to fall back on. The pandemic has not only exposed their vulnerability but has left their families very nearly on the brink of poverty and hunger.

As part of the response, Oxfam India has been reaching out to some of the most marginalised communities across 14 states. And with ample support from its donors it has been distributing cooked food, dry ration, hygiene and safety kits, and distributing cash to the poorest households.

Barclays is one of them. With Barclays support, Oxfam India has reached out to nearly 7000 people in five states — Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. They include people with disabilities, women-led households, waste pickers, domestic workers, transgenders, tea garden workers, migrant and informal sector workers, riot-affected families, daily wagers, and street vendors.

To reach out to the waste pickers, Oxfam India reached out to Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP). In 1993, a trade union of waste pickers called Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat was formed, to bring together waste pickers, itinerant buyers and other allied informal waste workers. Over the years, the union has fought for the workers’ the right to waste, dignity of work and for recognition of their contribution to the city. The efforts of the union over the years, has lead to the formation of SWaCH, and the integration of waste pickers in Pune’s municipal solid waste management system. SWaCH is the first wholly owned waste picker cooperative, with a current membership of 3,540 members.

Swati is one of the 1000 waste pickers supported by KKPKP for the Oxfam India-Barclays COVID-19 response. They were provided with food kit which included 20 kgs of Rice, 3 kgs of pulses, 10 kgs of flour, a packet of haldi and chili powder each, a litre of refined oil, a kg of salt, sugar and soy bean.

The hygiene kit that includes five units of masks, and six units of bathing soap, washing soap and sanitary napkins each, will soon be distributed. 

“During the time when we lost a large chunk of our income, the ration kits provided to us were a real boon. During Cyclone Nisarga, our house was inundated. I managed to salvage some food items. Thankfully now, these ration kits will keep us going for at least a month.”

 

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