The recycling-driven informal waste collection sector is doing Delhi a great service, but with little government recognition.
FAR away from the carefully tended lawns of Lutyen's Delhi, the designer malls on 1 Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road and the concrete ziggurats of East Delhi lurks West Delhi's Swaran Park Industrial Area, a moonscape sheathed in plastic. Plastic is everywhere - it litters the ground, laces the air, is consumed in slow-burning fires or is sorted, melted, fused and shredded. Trucks rumble in and out of the park, transporting huge sacks that are loaded or unloaded by muscular men, while others negotiate complex deals in strange, cryptic codes - "Crystal, L.D., A.B.S., kalli guddi, milky".
Considered to be Asia's biggest market for plastic recycling, Swaran Park provides an entirely different image of Delhi. Four square kilometres of farmland on the Delhi-Haryana border now accommodates hundreds of small godowns, or open-air warehouses, with tonnes of plastic piled high in them. Business runs round the clock with plastic being purchased from petty traders and passed onto the many recycling mills.
Mohan Singh, a godown supervisor, explains that Swaran Park and the neighbouring Mundka market represent only one stage of the long and complicated process of plastic recycling. He says, "We simply act as commission agents for raw plastic and hold onto our stocks until the price is right."
In India, recycling is carried out almost exclusively by the informal sector though city municipal corporations have been entrusted with the collection, disposal and recycling of all solid waste. But the reports of Expert Committees on Solid Waste Management and by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Toxics Link and Chintan indicate that the waste collection efficiency of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) stands at about 60 per cent, in spite of dedicating almost 95 per cent of its budget for waste handling, collection and transportation and leaving only 5 per cent for actual disposal. The MCD's inefficiency in waste management has meant that almost 20 per cent of Delhi's waste passes through the informal waste collection and recycling network at some stage.
Broadly speaking, the waste management process involves waste collection (from municipal dumps, houses, offices and industrial estates); sorting (where recyclables are segregated); and recycling. However, these seemingly simple tasks are complex and labour-intensive and are routinely carried out by Delhi's informal network of pheriwallahs, boriwallahs, thiawallahs, binnewalahs, khattewallahs, kabariwallahs, godown owners, suppliers and recyclers. Each category has a specific task cut out for it but some may perform more than one task in the supply chain.
Pheriwallahs and boriwallahs, with their large plastic sacks, are among the most visible manifestations of the category of "rag pickers". Their task is to scour the streets for usable maal. Maal could loosely be translated as "stuff". "Maal is anything that is of some use or value," explains Moinuddin, a rag picker. "It could be paper, plastic, glass or metal."
Binnewallahs are different in that they pick maal only from territorially demarcated municipal bins, while khattewallahs collect office waste. Thiawallahs and kabaris buy maal from offices or households; they usually command higher prices as their material is of much higher quality.
The first step in the recycling process is devoted to choosing between kooda (garbage) and maal. The maal is then transported either manually or on bicycles to the godowns. The godown can be a small shack tucked away in the corner of a large marketplace, an open tract of land near a drain, or a large open space hidden in the heart of the city. Five minutes from Connaught Place, Delhi's premier office area, is Takiya Kale Khan, one of Delhi's biggest waste markets.
Unlike Swaran Park, Takiya Kale Khana is perfectly camouflaged - a secret location for negotiations between the MCD and the waste trader - rviving on the understanding that as long as Takhiya Kale Khan remains unobtrusive, the municipal corporation shall deny any knowledge of its existence.
At Takiya Kale Khan, small traders buy untreated maal and pass it on to an assembly line of sorters, who specialise in classifying and segregating tonnes of undifferentiated plastic into more than 40 different categories that sell from Rs.2 a kg to Rs.200 a kg.
"Broadly speaking, there are five types of waste paper - road-sweep, press cutting, newspaper, office waste and cardboard - and they fetch anywhere between Rs.1.50 and Rs.12 a kg." says Rajesh Jaiswal, a godown owner in Kotla Mubarakpur, who specialises in trade in waste paper. "There are three major categories of glass - white, red and multi-coloured; as for plastic, there are over 40 types."
Quality creation is the most crucial part of the segregation process. This is when ragpicking transforms from a menial chore into a specialised and skilled task. Once sorted, the waste is sold under industry labels such as crystal, moulding, kalli guddi, sole and white P.P. The Central Pollution Control Board estimates that in India non-degradable recyclables constitute about 12 per cent of the total waste, a figure that is increasing day by day. However, such figures are merely indicative. A number of industries dump their wastes into the municipal waste network, which means that the percentages of recyclable waste are probably much higher.
Of the total municipal waste collected in Delhi, 95 per cent comes from the three landfills, at Gazipur, Balaswa and Okhla; however, the city is running out of space for more such landfills. The MCD's recent proposal to convert abandoned stone quarries in the Asola Sanctuary into landfills was met with stiff resistance from environmentalists.
In such a scenario, the informal economy, with its recycling-driven business model, is doing the city a great service, and in many ways is lessening the work of the municipal corporations. However, government recognition for the service is scant; waste-collection continues to be an activity that operates on the fringes of legality.
Some rag pickers feel that government recognition of the industry could improve their working conditions, which are often hazardous and unhygienic, and result in an increase in daily wages. At present, a pheriwallah makes about Rs.70 a day on an average.
However, government recognition shall bring its own challenges. A major reason for the success of the informal economy has been the low cost of production and flexible standards - a flexibility that will be curtailed if government regulations take effect.
Government recognition is unlikely to grant "protection" to those who seem to require it the most. Licensing of this sector will probably create a privileged group that will exercise power solely on the basis of their licences.
A case in point is the Supreme Court ruling of 2000 to close all polluting industries in Delhi, which resulted in the relocation of a number of plastic recycling factories to Haryana. The shift implied that the transfer of any material across the State border was impossible without a trader's licence. Few possessed this, resulting in the rise of middlemen who make massive profits today by simply ferrying raw materials across the border.
The most recent steps towards a formalisation of the waste economy have come through the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, issued by the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests. As per the rules, all urban waste must be segregated on the basis of waste sources (that is, industrial, biomedical, and household) and the nature of the waste (that is, biodegradable, non-biodegradable and recyclables) and disposed of accordingly.
The implementation of these rules has required a marked departure from the existing practices, and many urban local bodies in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai have handed over waste collection and segregation to private waste management companies.
Public support for such projects, however, is a matter of debate. While many residential associations have lauded the efficacy of private operators, activists and NGOs have expressed reservations about certain clauses in the contract, particularly those relating to "tipping costs".
At present, waste companies in Delhi are paid on a "per tonne" basis, with the fee ranging from Rs.500 to Rs.700 a tonne. This, many feel, acts as a disincentive for recycling and segregation and puts the newly created formal waste economy in direct conflict with the existing informal economy. The informal work of rag pickers may be curtailed on the grounds that it compromises the profit of the waste operator.
"The privatisation of waste collection in Delhi was essential as the MCD was unable to handle the massive volumes of waste generated by the city," explains Rakesh Mehta, former Commissioner, MCD.
Given that privatisation of waste collection in the city is less than a year old, no studies on its efficacy have been made public. However, informed sources in the MCD told Frontline that privatisation had resulted in a steep reduction in the costs of garbage collection and transportation, and the MCD expected to save Rs.30-40 crores annually.
Officials involved in the framing of the contract with private operators have explained that specific provisions have been incorporated in the contract to ensure an incremental 5 per cent segregation of household waste annually. A "40 items clause" (a list of 40 "restricted items" that shall not be counted as tonnage), officials say, has been specifically designed to protect rag pickers.
But waste operators, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have feigned ignorance of the "restricted items" list. While recyclables such as plastics and iron shall not be counted as tonnage, the contract does not disallow the private operators from selling recyclables.
Thus, the privatisation of waste collection might provide the portal for the entry of corporate interests into the waste sector.
"Taking over waste collection is just the first step," feels Santosh Kumar, a godown owner in Takiya Sarai. "Soon waste companies will build sorting stations, then godowns and finally recycling factories. Then they will own the entire sector."