On the scrap heap

Unprotected by the law and largely ignored by society, scrap collectors lead lives full of misery.

Published : Jul 21, 2001 00:00 IST

Scrap collectors at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai.-MEENAL AGARWAL

Scrap collectors at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai.-MEENAL AGARWAL

JANAKIBAI SALVE'S day begins at 4 a.m. After completing the domestic chores, she goes to upmarket residential areas in the neighbourhood. That is where she works, collecting garbage from public dustbins. Around noon she begins to salvage scrap from the rubbish she has collected. She carries a load of 15 kg or more to the scrap trader's shop 4 km away. For the salable scrap in this load she gets about Rs.50. This is the income that sustains her family - husband and three children, besides herself.

Janakibai's neighbour Chandrakala Adagale is also a scrap collector but she goes to one of the dumping grounds of the municipal corporation. Hundreds of women like her wait for municipal trucks to unload garbage collected from all over the city. She spends about six hours at the dumping ground, breathing toxic fumes amidst glass and metal pieces, to collect paper. She also earns about Rs.50 a day.

Janakibai and Chandrakala are relatively fortunate in that they have a roof over their heads. There are hundreds of scrap collectors in Mumbai, who live on the streets.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) estimates the number of scrap collectors in the city at 50,000, most of them migrants from the drought-prone areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Almost all of them are Dalits. Women constitute a significant proportion of this unorganised labour force. "People look at us as though we are scavengers. Why can't they see that this is the only way we can make a living? We don't beg and we help keep the city clean," says Janakibai.

Mumbai produces 6,000 tonnes of garbage a day. The methods of collection and disposal of garbage are becoming increasingly crucial for city planning. The BMC plans to increase the momentum of the "Clean Mumbai" movement by creating public awareness on segregating and recycling garbage. Privatising garbage collection is also an option that is being explored. In the absence of any legal protection to scrap collectors, the planners are under no compulsion to take them into account in any plan for garbage collection. The only way to protect their interests is to organise them, say trade unions and other non-governmental organisations.

On May 5, sacrificing two days' earnings, Janakibai and other women who live and work in similar circumstances travelled to Pune to attend a State-level conference of scrap collectors. "We went to present our demands. All we want is some basic rights," Janakibai said. The conference, organised by the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a Pune-based trade union of scrap collectors, was attended by about 6,000 people from different parts of Maharashtra - Mumbai, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Solapur, Aurangabad, Nasik, Pune and so on. Most of them were members of the KKPKP, and the others belonged to NGOs in their respective towns. About 90 per cent of the participants were women. The scrap collectors presented a list of demands to the Minister of State for Self-employment and Labour.

"We were not paid to attend this conference," Janakibai says. "Unlike a political rally, we had to pay for our travel and other expenses." She said that some women walked from their villages because they could not afford transportation. "We want to be heard. We want social security benefits like pensions when we cannot work anymore. No longer will we tolerate being treated like untouchables," she says.

According to the KKPKP, scrap collectors should be recognised as unprotected manual workers and covered by the Maharashtra Mathadi Hamal and Other Manual Workers (Regulation of Employment and Welfare) Act, 1969. This Act makes it mandatory for traders and industries to contribute towards funds that could be used to provide benefits to workers. Hamal (headload) workers enjoy such benefits, thanks to a levy by their employers.

Poornima Chikarmane, a functionary of the KKPKP and Assistant Director of the Adult Education Department of the SNDT Women's University, told Frontline that scrap collectors, unlike construction workers or hamal workers, were self-employed persons. Since they do not have an employer, they are excluded from the Mathadi Act. "But this is only a technicality," Chikarmane says. "Rag-pickers deal with the same scrap trader every day. They do not scout around for the best price. Some have been going to the same shop for two or three generations." Therefore the traders could be classified as employers.

The KKPKP has proposed that scrap dealers create a fund by withholding a percentage of the price they pay to the scrap collectors and contributing an equal amount. This amount could be deposited with the Advisory Committee on the Act of 1969. Pensions, gratuity and provident fund could be paid to scrap collectors from this fund. But for scrap collectors to be covered by the Act, traders will have to be registered and will have to issue receipts. Under the Shops and Commercial Establishment Act, 1961, traders will have to protect workers if they work in their premises. Since most of the sorting of scrap is done in the premises of traders, the Act is applicable to them. "Dealing in scrap is an extremely lucrative business," Chikarmane says. Large industrial units buy scrap to produce low-cost energy or to recycle it. Scrap paper is used as a binding material. In fact, it is an 'invisible economy'. Very few scrap traders pay income tax, sales tax or octroi.

Little recognition is given to the fact that the entire work of recycling various materials is based on the labour of scrap collectors. In effect, their work is productive in economic and environmental terms, says the KKPKP. A significant part of the recycling process is over by the time the material reaches the trader. "We know the traders make a lot of money from what we collect. But we don't know how much and so we don't know what to demand for our scrap," Janakibai says.

The union suggests that in addition to creating a welfare fund, the municipal corporations should impose a cess on citizens and that should go towards providing medical and life insurance coverage to scrap collectors. Citizens and the corporations benefit from their service, and they could do something in return, the KKPKP says.

The KKPKP admits that working out the logistics of creating a system of welfare and security for scrap collectors will be a long-drawn bureaucratic process. Nevertheless, it has worked in the case of hamal workers.

"We work until the day we die," says Janakibai. "If an accident maims us, there are very few options to earn a livelihood." In the event of an accident, the scrap collector has to use his or her own resources for treatment. Accidents do happen frequently. Rukuminibai Salve, who works at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai, says the tooth of a pitch fork pierced her leg while she was wading through wet garbage. A scrap collector had to be hospitalised following an asthmatic attack triggered by noxious fumes emanating from the dump. According to Chikarmane, most of the hazards can be avoided if garbage is segregated at source and scrap collectors are trained in safe collection methods.

RAG-PICKERS are often victims of police harassment. They are also often beaten and chased away by watchmen in residential areas of the middle and upper classes. They are not allowed to sit near the garbage dumps and sort out materials because the local residents would complain about the stench and the litter. "It is their rubbish which I collect and they complain," Janakibai says. The KKPKP says that municipalities should register scrap collectors and issue them photo identity cards. In Mumbai and Pune, such identity cards have been issued by NGOs and endorsed by the municipalities. "We used to be called chor (thieves) and chased away when we went to collect garbage from buildings. This card has really helped us. The watchmen do not bother us now," says Durgabai Kherbakatam, a scrap collector who lives in Pune. According to the KKPKP, while some municipalities are willing to endorse the identity cards, others feel that it may be construed as accepting scrap collectors as employees of the government.

The cities of Maharashtra have made progress in the matter of garbage collection but towns like Ahmednagar are struggling to cope with the problem. Scrap collectors' daily earnings in these towns are half of what they get in Mumbai. Girijabai Raosaheb of Ahmednagar says it is a constant struggle for her. The Ahmednagar municipality has not endorsed identity cards. She is chased out of residential neighbourhoods and the police harass her. Her average daily earning is Rs.25-30. She is the sole breadwinner in the family and there are days when she goes home empty-handed. "If we have cards like people in Pune and Mumbai, it might be easier for us," she says.

If scrap collectors cannot work owing to any injury caused by accidents at the dumping ground, their children take up the job. In order to prevent this, the scrap collectors' organisations have demanded that rag-picking be included in the list of hazardous jobs prohibited under the Child Labour Prohibition Regulation Act, 1996. Chikarmane says that when KKPKP members notice children carrying scrap, they confiscate their bags.

Scrap collectors have begun to realise that educating their children is more important in the long term than sending them for scrap collection, although this means a loss of income for the family. Janakibai says that she does not want her children to pick garbage but she does not have the resources to help her daughter complete high school. "She has finished Class VII. I will take a loan if I have to, but she must finish school."

The KKPKP, which has been working among scrap collectors for a decade now, has instilled a lot of confidence in them, says Chikarmane. Mangal Gaikwad, a member of the organisation, used to collect scrap from municipal garbage bins. Now she goes to a residential colony on a bicycle and collects garbage. She has enrolled herself in an adult education programme.

In another instance, a scrap collector was accused of carrying stolen articles. When the police asked her to empty her sack in front of them, she agreed to do so on condition that they would refill the bag if they found only scrap in it and nothing else. The police emptied the contents of the bag and did not find any stolen article. They had to fulfil the condition set by the scrap collector.

In Mumbai, the Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS) has been working for the uplift of women scrap collectors. It trains them in vermiculture and gardening. Jyoti Mhapsekar, president of the SMS, told Frontline that if the BMC failed to integrate scrap collectors into its garbage collection schemes or privatised the system, thousands of women would lose their jobs. Organising scrap collectors is not the only solution. "If women learn to make organic manure through vermiculture or if they can grow and tend plants, they will at least gain the skills for some other work," she says. The SMS has an arrangement with the BMC under which garbage from the city's vegetable markets are dumped at a designated spot in the dumping ground. The wet waste, dumped into pits built by the women, is converted into manure. Mhapsekar says that it is a laborious work and there may not be a worse place to work than a dumping ground. But there is an assured income from the sale of manure and plants.

THE Deonar dumping ground is the largest in Mumbai. It occupies a huge expanse of land that is almost fully covered by garbage mounds. As soon as the corporation trucks dump the unsegregated garbage, scrap collectors clamber on to the piles. Each groups of scrap collectors has a territorial division within the dumping ground, and no "trespassing" is allowed. There is also a rough division of labour. For instance, people who collect glass will not collect paper. Most scrap collectors do not have footwear, let alone any protective gear.

S.S. Bhagwat, the BMC's special officer in charge of garbage collection, told Frontline that the Corporation spent Rs.400 crores annually on garbage collection. Of the 6,000 tonnes of waste that Mumbai puts out, 4,000 tonnes is kitchen (household) waste, he says. Although the BMC has employed 25,000 workers to collect and dump garbage, the staff strength is not sufficient to meet the city's needs. Bhagwat says that the BMC is aiming to create a "zero garbage" situation in the city. It is planning to introduce door-to-door collection of segregated garbage. This, he says, is a tough task, which cannot be fulfilled without additional staff and public awareness.

Ideally, scrap collectors should be part of the collection and sorting process. However, people complain that scrap collectors take what they want from the bins and litter the place with the rest. "If we train them, it will be beneficial for us and for them," Bhagwat says.

While the unions and the NGOs may succeed in protecting the interests of scrap collectors at the grassroots level, it is the responsibility of the State government to address the larger issues.

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