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City Life – Waste Handlers, Bhopura

Lives of rag pickers.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Ms Nisha used to wake up an hour before dawn, make breakfast for her family, and then start her workday. Accompanied by her four small children (she couldn’t leave them unattended at home), she would walk from house to house collecting garbage; her husband works in a small tailoring shop. Ms Nisha would return home by late afternoon to segregate the collection; her day always ending sooner than her work did.

This was the 36-year-old ragpicker’s routine until one-and-a-half years ago. She still wakes up early to make the breakfast. And she is still a ragpicker. But she drops her children at school before heading to work, and she is home by early afternoon with no trash to sort.

Ms Nisha’s life has improved thanks to a self-described “army” of cleaners.

Safai Sena, a registered network of 12,000 waste-handlers and recyclers in the National Capital Region (NCR), was set up by a group of waste-pickers in New Delhi in 2009; the environment-focused, not-for-profit Chintan helped the fledgling organization by connecting it to other like-minded networks and with bulk-waste generators.

All the members of this army — like Ms Nisha — are waste-pickers and small-scale recyclers, including kabadiwallas, scrap dealers who buy garbage and junk from individual households. Many Sena members sort reusable materials from the three landfill sites at Gazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa, the hill-sized dumps of refuse heaped up every day with garbage from across Delhi.

“…Apart from being good for the environment, our work should be safe, respected, recognized and clean for us” — that’s the dream Safai Sena’s waste-handlers share on their website.

The organization has brought some order to the worklife of at least a few of Delhi’s over 150,000 ragpickers. Even the most elemental aspects have proved to be transformative. The laminated ID card that the Sena issues to kabadiwallas, has given them a formal recognition of being waste collectors. It has reduced their harassment by the police.

“By collecting and recycling rubbish, we protect our nation from various health hazards. We contribute to control the climate change,” says Safai Sena secretary Jai Prakash Choudhary, who started out as a kabadiwalla 16 years ago.

Ms Nisha, who lives in a one-room house in Garima Garden in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, goes to the Sena-run material recovering facilities at Bhopura, a 10-minute walk from her home. Consisting of a large tin shed, this is one of the four sites where wet and dry garbage is daily processed.

The wet waste, such as food leftovers, is turned into organic fertilizer (khad) in a machine or in a pit and is sold once a month by the Safai Sena to establishments such as Taj Palace hotel and Select Citywalk mall — from whom it buys the garbage in the first place. The waste is bought on a kilogram basis — water bottles are costliest at Rs.25 per kg, although wet waste is free.

One afternoon, scores of people clad in green coats were sitting in two rows in the segregation section of the Bhopura facility, busy digging their gloved hands into the 4-tonne dry waste that the facility receives daily. There was a stench in the air.

Everybody was wearing a mask. The pickers were sitting on low stools and the garbage was spread out on partially raised platforms. Most of the workers were women — the facility employs 105 women and just 15 men.

“Here,” says Mr Choudhury, “we pick out Tetra Paks, plastic bottles, tissue papers, soft-drink cans, newspapers.”

These objects are sold to recycling factories and the money earned is used to pay salaries. A doctor comes each month to the facility and his expenses are paid for by Chintan.

Tossing a plastic glass tumbler into a mound of similar junk, Ms Noor Nisha, a waste-picker, lists out the advantages of working in the facility — “I have now fixed working hours. I get a minimum of 8,400 rupees every month. I have health insurance.”

The employees are also provided with protective gear of shoes, gloves and masks. Mr Choudhary says pickers are also trained to spot potentially harmful objects.

The Safai Sena’s brochure estimates that over 1% of the population in our cities comprises people who pick and recycle waste; and that 10% of all the world’s waste-pickers and kabadiwallas live in India. Delhi is India’s top waste producer with a daily turnover of 8,500 tonnes of solid waste, 22% of it is recycled by waste-pickers.

The Sena’s claims are based on the data given by the city’s various municipalities.

For the children of Safai Sena members’, Chintan’s “No Child in Trash” programme runs 15 centres that hold classes — basic education is provided to prepare them for the municipal schools. The teachers are trained at Chintan. The parents themselves are finding alternative means of employment.

Take Ms Nisha again. Her shift in the facility ends at 1 pm. She reaches home within half an hour. After preparing lunch for the family, she takes a quick nap and wakes up to make bundles of bindis for a wholesaler in ladies’ toiletries. The additional income, Ms Nisha says, is not substantial but one day soon she hopes to be sufficiently empowered to quit her present job.

No dream work this


2. (Ms Nisha)

3. (Ms Noor Nisha)




7. (Jai Prakash Choudhary)








Waste pickers across Delhi











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