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Subir Roy: Remember the ragpicker

Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

He is a highly useful social agent whose importance is growing.

In this season of hope and giving, spare a thought for the scavenger or ragpicker. This doesn’t mean distributing some food and clothes — though that would be useful as far as it goes — but think what he means to our lives and whether we should abolish him or celebrate him while working for the day when he has better things to do and society eliminates jobs of that sort altogether.

When the principal of a good school in central Kolkata heard that some of my friends and I were engaged in cleaning up parts of the city, she invited us to her school to show the mess the road in front had become from a totally unauthorised garbage dump that had come up. As I knew of a famous vat (where municipal workers dump garbage before it is carried away in trucks) in that area, I thought she was talking of the same spot.

But the sight in front of her school looked decent enough except for stacked large synthetic bags which obviously contained carefully-sorted recyclable garbage destined for agents who buy things like recovered paper, plastic, glass or metal waste. Then she explained: The spot had become an unofficial transit godown of the scavengers and several of them hung around at all times and, after dark, smoked or ingested the wrong things and did god knows what else. This was not only physically offensive, but also hazardous for her students and staff.

Try as I might, I could not get any sense from her that those who recover recyclables from our garbage and sort them out perform a highly useful social function, which householders do in developed countries by sorting out their own garbage before passing it on. What is needed is to do the sorting elsewhere and thus help improve the lives of those who do it for us and are absolutely at the bottom of the social ladder. Besides, we need to understand while we have a right to a clean and pleasant environment, they have a right to receiving help, which can improve their lives, so that they do not have to scavenge to keep body and soul together.

Not long thereafter, newspapers carried a report from Copenhagen on how a ragpicker from Delhi marked a significant presence at the climate conference and spoke in halting English to a riveted audience on how he and the like performed a very useful social role, but most of society simply wanted to abolish them without offering any help, and instead funded incinerators to burn solid waste which produced harmful emissions.

At about the same time, I came across a fascinating new book — Of Poverty and Plastic — by Kaveri Gill (OUP), a post-doctoral scholar from Cambridge who had done pioneering field work in and around Delhi for this purpose. I grabbed and plunged into it, totally fascinated. Initially, i was put off by the thoroughly academic content and writing style, and the fact that in good part she was addressing fellow academics about the limitations of conventional economics; the need to adopt an interdisciplinary approach; bringing in anthropology and use of methods like ethnography to get to the heart of the subject.

But at the end of the effort, I was able to glean some gems of insight. One was that the members of the lowest of castes, who did such unclean things like raising pigs or working in tanneries, tended to become scavengers on coming to cities. For them, it was a graduation into a cleaner and better life to be able to earn a living sorting out plastics.

She also debunked the view that those at the lowest stratum of society were the most exploited by those immediately above them, like the lower-level dealers who bought what the scavengers sold. Caste-wise, the latter were in the same boat, and socially both were in it together. And the biggest dealers at the top made the most but they had to survive in a highly-competitive market where almost everybody traded at the market clearing price.

But her final point was the most startling. Civil society, with the help of the courts that passed orders against the use of recycled plastic bags, was really abolishing the scavenger by taking away his livelihood without creating any alternative source of livelihood. It was left to the plastic dealers with active political links to fight back via the political route. But the tough courts eventually prevented the executive from diluting its orders so that the scavenger and his dealer brethren remained aliens in society.

The issue is that scavenging is really cheap in developing countries, and for a planet that has realised the imperative of recycling waste and conserving resources, the scavenger and the informal economy that has grown up around the collection and use of recyclable materials are social assets. I will fight tooth and nail to remove a garbage dump or informal sorting spot in front of my house and we should live in clean, healthy and pleasant environments but where does the scavenger go? The manger in Bethlehem was pretty filthy.

First Published: Fri, December 25 2009. 00:54 IST