On one side are companies like Hyderabad-based Ramky, eager to capitalise on the burgeoning business of managing waste in Indian cities. On the other are the hundreds of thousands of ragpickers who have been informally cleaning Indian cities for decades and are now seeing a grave threat to their livelihoods. How the conflict shapes up will have major implications for waste management and poverty alleviation in the country's urban areas.
Delhi is the centre of this conflict. As the city has grown at a hectic pace, and piles of its refuse have cascaded on to the streets, the David-versus-Goliath skirmishes have increased in intensity over the years. "My mother sorted garbage on this street corner," says Guddu, in her 50s, sitting at the trash dumpster behind the Reserve Bank of India building on Rafi Marg. "I grew up here. I've fought them before and will fight them again," she adds. A recent, uneasy lull is thanks to the ability of the ragpickers to present a united front. "After we organised, it's become more difficult to humiliate us or take money from us," says Shashi Bhushan Pandit, president of the All-India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM).
Much of the reason for these clashes is because garbage, for the illiterate, urban, unskilled slum-dweller, is the only stable means to an independent, quasi-entrepreneurial living. Not all garbage is sought-after. After all, about 20 per cent of Delhi's daily output of 12,000 tonnes comprises inert waste, such as sand and stones from construction sites. But much of the rest is picked clean by ragpickers, who make India one of the most efficient trash-harvesting countries in the world. Fifty per cent of the waste is 'wet' or organic and yields treasures like bones worth Rs 1,500 a kg and hair worth Rs 2,000 a kg. The mother lode, however, lies in the last 30 per cent of the waste pie - recyclables - and is the real reason for pitched battles between corporations and ragpickers.
A ragpicker might get Rs 30 a kg for plastic found in bottles, making one bottle roughly worth a rupee. A4 size papers are worth Rs 21 a kg. The total recyclable market in Delhi is estimated at Rs 560 crore a year
All of this trash comes from one of the three municipal authorities: New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) is responsible for 2.5 per cent of the city's area; the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) covers 95 per cent; and the remaining 2.5 per cent is managed by the Delhi Cantonment Board. Following the Supreme Court-directed Municipal Solid Waste Act, 2000, Delhi's municipalities invited bids for contracts to haul its waste from dumpsters around the city, igniting the first of many clashes.
So, who has a right to this garbage? "Ragpickers don't have a right, per se," says Ramky Group Executive Director Goutham Reddy. "But we corporations, as well as municipalities, do have a responsibility to take care of them," he adds. AIKMM's Pandit doesn't agree. "They have no right to collect waste door-to-door. It's not in their contract," he says.
In order to be able to go door-to-door to collect household trash, ragpickers often make monthly or annual under-the-table payments to residents' welfare associations. Payments, or arrangements - referred to as 'settings' - are made at corporate and government buildings, where a low-level functionary is paid to access recyclables. These are then brought to a local dumpster and sorted. Pandit says NDMC's contract with Ramky, worth Rs 4.9 crore, is only for hauling trash to the landfill; it says nothing about 'door-to-door', leaving that bit open to interpretation. What they are really after, he says, is the Rs 14 crore to be made from recyclables.
As a result, ragpickers have been, they say, consistently harassed by Ramky's workers, who extract regular payments from them, though this has dwindled since the union was formed. Ramky's Reddy says ragpickers cause hygiene problems by strewing garbage around dumpsters, in their attempt to extract recyclables. "What we propose is rehabilitation of these workers, not a continuation of the existing system," says Reddy. "We are quite happy to employ ragpickers as transporters or waste haulers," he adds. Making good on this offer would mean providing fair wages and health benefits to a big chunk of the existing 150,000 workers in Delhi, which no company has done so far in the past decade since entering the business.
The question that looms over the industry today is how to view the participation of ragpickers in the waste business. After all, there are plenty of examples of old-world professions gradually being rendered extinct by new ways of thinking and doing. Should ragpickers be consigned to the same fate as, say, the town crier or the lamp lighter? Or, is there a way to legitimise their profession and include them in a new model for municipal waste management?