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From Rags to Penury

Women ragpickers in Delhi scavenging through a pile of refuse for recyclable material. Credit: Dharmendra Yadav/IPS.

NEW DELHI, May 1 2013 (IPS) - India’s planners worry about ‘jobless growth’, but perhaps nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than a policy of handing over the collection and disposal of the capital’s refuse to large private corporations, leaving close to 50,000 ragpickers unemployed.

For decades ragpickers provided a service to this city, scavenging waste for recyclable plastic, aluminium, glass and other materials, and earning a livelihood by selling their pickings to contractors with equipment to process the waste into useful items like fibre-reinforced roofing sheets.

“We could easily make 300 rupees (5.50 dollars)  between us on a good day,” says Nafeesa, who lives in a slum on the edge of the Tughlaqabad landfill with her three children. Now with the new waste disposal policy in place, Nafeesa says she is left with no choice but to return to an uncertain future in her village in Badayun district, Uttar Pradesh state.

Last year, defying Supreme Court strictures against incineration technologies, the Delhi government opened its first waste-to-energy (WTE) plant at Okhla under a public-private partnership (PPP). Two more are coming up fast on the same PPP basis.

“Ragpicking is hard labour, but it does not require any special skill"

“A 16 megawatt (MW) WTE plant has been commissioned at Okhla, utilising about 1,950 tons of municipal solid waste daily. Work on another WTE plant at Ghazipur of 10 MW, utilising 1,300 tons of waste per day is in progress, and a third plant with 24 MW capacity, utilising 3,000 tons of waste, has been approved for Narela,” Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dixit informed the Delhi state assembly in March.

The Okhla plant is registered as a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto protocol on the grounds that the power it generates can be offset against carbon that might otherwise have been produced by burning coal, gas or other fossil fuels.

But this claim has been challenged as fraudulent by environmental activists who say that the plant has departed from its original design and uses technology that is not approved for residential and ecologically sensitive areas such as Okhla.

According to Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch, an environmental NGO, the plant violates a Supreme Court ruling which restricts waste processing to non-incineration technologies. “The plant is also sited within the eco-sensitive zone of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and the Asola Wildlife Park, which are protected by court orders,” Krishna told IPS.

Okhla’s residents are concerned about what the CDM does not take into account – carcinogenic dioxins, furans and heavy metals that are byproducts of incinerating municipal waste. The residents are fighting to get the plant closed down through a petition that is currently being heard at the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

Nafeesa hopes that that the NGT will shut the plant down for reasons that are more dire. Its continued operation means that she and her fellow ragpickers will remain jobless. “Ragpicking is hard labour, but it does not require any special skill,” explains Nafeesa.

The Okhla incinerator has already finished off hundreds of jobs, according to surveys conducted by the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group (CERAG) that has been working to improve the lives of ragpickers who efficiently took care of the bulk of the 10,000 tons of garbage generated by the city’s 17 million residents.

“While the ragpickers segregated up to 60 percent of waste for recycling, the large corporations which have been awarded concessions to process waste are required to recycle only 20 percent of the refuse they collect,” says Bharati Chaturvedi of CERAG.

Studies conducted by CERAG at Ghazipur and Tughlaqabad show that waste processing at the landfills is the only income-generating activity for most of the inhabitants.

“Most families have at least one member working as a waste picker or supplement their earnings by sorting waste part-time,” says a CERAG study published in 2011. “It is common for children who attend school to spend one or two hours in the evening sorting metal waste, and this provides many families with an important source of supplemental income.”

With the Ghazipur WTE plant nearing completion, the ragpicker families in the nearby slum clusters have begun to move to areas of Delhi that are still out of the reach of the new waste management corporations. Others, like Nafeesa in Tughlaqabad, are planning to return to their distant villages.

“Corporatisation of waste management has been at an environmental cost and has had a hugely negative social fallout,” Dharmendra Yadav, general secretary of Lok Adhikar (People’s Right), a major non-governmental organisation that is working to rehabilitate younger ragpickers by getting them into schools.

“We need urgently to get children formerly employed as ragpickers into schools,” Mahabal Mishra, who represents the West Delhi constituency in Parliament tells IPS. “We are already trying to set up permanent homes for ragpickers.”

But, according to Krishna, the problems created by handing over the management of waste to large corporations are far more complex than building a few shelters and schools. “It is not only depriving people of jobs but bringing in technologies that are costly, unsustainable and dangerously polluting in a thickly populated city like Delhi.

“WTE plants depend on waste with a high calorific value such as paper, cartons, plastics and multi-layered packaging and, in a city like Delhi, all these are taken out  to be reprocessed, leaving nothing that will burn,” said Krishna. “According to existing laws it is illegal to incinerate plastics which have high calorific value.”

In fact, the website of the Delhi government’s environment department reads: “Delhi had one municipal waste incinerator, but it never worked because Indian waste has low calorific value and is unsuitable for incineration.”

Yadav says that one way to help the ragpickers is to formalise their activity and pay them to undertake door-to-door refuse collection along with efforts at rehabilitation. “This could easily be factored into the costs of building expensive WTE plants, but who is listening?”

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