On this fine cold and wintry morning, we, a team of concerned corporate activists, started our journey at the OkhlaWaste to Manure plant, New Delhi.This walk was the start of our attempt to understand the business of dirt and dumps.
As we walked through the Tughalakabad area, we were surrounded by heaps of collected and strewn garbage. The stench was terrible.
The cycle cart is a common sight here, winding its way through the lanes and by lanes of this city, collecting garbage from households, shops and mandis- a sort of mini-market,tied and secured onto this cart and taken to the primary segregation centre, known as ‘dhalao’.
The garbage bags are emptied onto jute sacks used as a base. With their bare hands, the workers sift through the garbage to pick up‘re-sellable’ items such as plastic, paper, gaddas (mattresses)and empty bottles. This is the first stage of separation. These items are then placed in separate corners allotted for each category of waste. It will be sold later or eaten, in the case of food.
Apart from a few random and rusted tools, they work with their bare hands and standing on torn footwear. Waking up each day to more garbage, more smell and perhaps illness. This place is their home, office and world. In a corner lies their ‘lunch box’, neatly wrapped, maybe their only main meal of the day, away from the mess but still a part of it.
Driving deeper, we see a sort of village complete with small shops, tiny huts, clothes hanging on wires, men smoking beedisand domestic animals running around.
Right in the middle of the community there is this major dumping ground, or the open dhalao, where the tippers off-load their garbage stock. The tippers have to be manually pushed and turned over in the middle of the dump. There is complete order in this seeming chaos. Each owner of the tipper sorts his share of the garbage and a few others sort the unclaimed waste. The tipper then leaves.There seemed to be clear unspoken demarcation of areas, roles and responsibilities.
An area infested with cows, goats, cats, dogs and flies; all living on the same waste and sharing the same germs and disease. Cows eating through plastic bags to get to the vegetable leftovers inside, goats nibbling on stale grass and dogs hunting through layers for meat, is a common sight.
Though this is a huge daily dump, it is a little world in itself, where women, children, men and animals live and breathe in harmony. They seem to have accepted the sight and the stench as an integral part of their daily world.
We are suddenly surrounded with people who hope that we are perhaps the ‘angels’ sent by God to wave a wand and wrap at least a wall around the huge open dump. But they are disappointed.
Encircling the dump are 1600 households and shops which ‘deliver’ the waste to this dump.
This is a world where children are forced to choose not to go to school and help load and off load tippers, with their fathers, uncles and other community members.
There are rag-picking ‘clubs’ where the men generally work at the primary sites doing the segregation of the waste, while the women work at the secondary sites handling the secondary shift.
The garbage, once segregated, is sold to the Thekedarat a wholesale rate. The rag-pickers earn their source of income or daily allowance from the amount of waste they sell to him in a day. His place is the highest in the hierarchy that prevails in this world of garbage. The Thekedaris chosen from amongst the several rag-pickers, one who has the capital, competence, contacts and experience.
At the Thekedar’s house, the second round of waste segregation happens. No wet waste comes here; it is mainly plastics, glass, paper and gaddas. Different family members handle various duties like sorting glass bottles, weaving cloth sheets, and segregating paper.
The rag picking community is a very close knit. Amazingly, there is ambition and also an acute lack of awareness. Obtaining good education for their children is a common aspiration for this community, like a passport to freedom. All that is needed is for our society to recognize them and reach out to them.
If proper skills are taught and slight exposure is given, this community can emerge from the mess that they are in, while they clear it for others.
IL&FS, an infrastructure company, is setting up a 12 MW power plant which will convert waste to energy (WTE). Selected rag-pickers will be trained and put to work in the WTE. A bunch of dedicated corporate activists are all set to bring a new face to the waste management project with an aim to reduce these dhalaos, so that the waste goes straight to the plant, providing the ragpicking community opportunities and training for a bright empowered future. Separate livelihood programs are being developed by Nalanda Foundation, a non-profit.