Ragpickers at Mumbai's Deonar, despite being 'unsung heroes of sustainability', battle garbage mafia and state apathy

At the Deonar dumping ground, it is easy to find many children who grow up in the garbage — the unregulated industry of child ragpickers is on the rise.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

Read more articles from the series here

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Mumbai: Nazma migrated to Mumbai nine years ago in the hope of a better life. With hardly any employment opportunities in her village in Bihar, she and her husband had struggled to feed their family of six. The 40-year-old’s dreams for Mumbai were small — she didn’t hope for riches, just enough to get by.

That’s what her life as a ragpicker got her, until two years ago, when a fire gutted her ‘workplace’, reducing her livelihood to ashes. Today, work is scanty, fetching her Rs 150-200 daily. She lives with her family in a dark, one-room house that echoes with TV sounds, as her two children in tattered clothes run around. They live right next to an open drain, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and most neighbours are ragpickers like her.

They are residents of Indira Nagar’s Chikhalwadi, a slum on the fringes of Mumbai’s biggest landfill, the Deonar dumping ground, where they all work.

Saeed Saleem Sheikh lives with his family in a small one-room house in a slum at Indira Nagar, right on the fringes of the Deonar landfill. He says, that after the fire, ragpickers are not let in, so they have to bribe the watchmen to let them work. Devyani Nighoskar/101Reporters

Saeed Saleem Sheikh lives with his family in a small one-room house in a slum at Indira Nagar, right on the fringes of the Deonar landfill. He says, that after the fire, ragpickers are not let in, so they have to bribe the watchmen to let them work. Devyani Nighoskar/101Reporters

Sprawled across 132 hectares, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)-managed dump is located in the financial capital’s eastern suburbs. Established in 1927, it is the city’s largest, receiving almost 6,000 metric tons of waste daily, and is also the biggest employer of conservancy workers. As we make our rounds outside it, we come across Lata, busy segregating waste by the roadside. She sorts through the pile with her bare hands. “I often sustain cuts because of glass and metal waste,” she says, adding, “The BMC provided me with gloves, but they wore out.”

At the moment, however, Deonar’s ragpickers have bigger problems than just the unavailability of safety equipment.

A mafia to kindle the fires

The dump has seen three major fires — in January 2015, March 2016, and March 2018. While BMC officials say highly combustible materials sparked the blazes on warm days, it’s no secret that there are other notorious powers at play. Most of what goes in and around the landfill seems to be controlled by an aggressive "garbage mafia."

“Garbage yields a lot of money, madam,” says a ragpicker from Deonar’s Shivaji Nagar area.

According to reports, the trucks carry Rs 75 lakh worth of trash from the dump daily, making its trade a multi-crore business. Several small businesses have sprung up in and around the area that buy the trash from the ragpickers and sell it to bigger companies for recycling and as scrap. The mafia sets the price and often indulges in illegal scrap trade. Several cars and bikes are brought here and burned for metal. This is what allegedly started the 2016 fire, which resulted in the arrest of 13 scrap dealers that April.

“It is a very dangerous area, controlled by the mafia,” says Dheeraj, a 23-year-old auto driver whose mother worked as a ragpicker at the Deonar dump until a few years ago. “She had to stop after she was no longer allowed inside.” In fact, several ragpickers have been barred from entering the dump after the fires.

Saeed Saleem Shaikh (27), a resident of Chikhalwadi, says ragpickers now have to bribe the “bouncers” on duty at the dump. “I understand why they had to do this, but they should think about us and provide an alternative source of livelihood,” he adds. Shaikh, who lives with his wife and their three-year-old son, came to Mumbai from a village near Delhi to find work. “I am trying to get a job in the BMC, because that will bring perks like job security and safety equipment; but it is difficult. Ragpickers are given nothing.”

However, it’s not all rosy as a BMC employee either, as two employees I meet outside the Deonar dump share. Imran, who is segregating paper from a pile of garbage, says bouncers beat up many of them regularly. “We need a valid ID proof to be allowed in,” he says, holding up an old tattered card that has now become illegible. “When will we receive new ones?” he fumes.

Ahmed (24) echoes him. “We get work only for a few days a month. Give us other jobs, if not this,” he pleads, complaining about the increasing inflation.

Poor quality of life and alcoholism

Poverty, poor living and working conditions, and general apathy from the authorities and society has given rise to alcoholism and drugs in the squalor around Deonar. “My husband must be lying somewhere drunk; he’s lost his job. Whatever money I earn, he drinks it away,” rues Sindhu, another conservancy worker. Casteism and communalism seem normalised to an extent, but their similar conditions bind them. While living in a city gives them easy access to government hospitals and to civic schools for their children, most claim that no government schemes have translated into reality for them, barring slum dwellers’ rehabilitation.

Garbage at the workplace and garbage at home. The living conditions of those living on the fringes of the landfill are dismal. Devyani Nighoskar/101Reporters

Garbage at the workplace and garbage at home. The living conditions of those living on the fringes of the landfill are dismal. Devyani Nighoskar/101Reporters

Health schemes, such as the Rajiv Gandhi Jeevandayi Aarogya Yojana, haven’t succeeded here, largely due to lack of awareness among the local community. Surprisingly though, most ragpickers I speak to don’t complain of any major health ailments. “Our body has become immune to it now. We have been working amid garbage since our childhood,” chuckles Shaikh.

Indeed, it is easy to find many children who grow up in the garbage — the unregulated industry of child ragpickers is on the rise.

A 14-year-old boy, who often rummages through piles of garbage to find something to sell to shops,  says, "I do it to earn some money and enjoy with my friends.” He claims that his father, a tailor, is unaware of his misadventures. His friend says they no longer go to Deonar dump due to the fear of bouncers, who allegedly beat them up and even blame them for the fire. “We go to the Mulund dump,” he says, showing me his bandaged leg. The injury is from a glass shard that cut him while scavenging.

Vinod Shetty, an advocate specialising in human rights and labour law, who started the ACORN Foundation, says child ragpickers are a product of abject poverty and apathy. “They are part of society’s most marginalised and unorganised sector. Until it’s formalised, nothing will happen. These people do such important work, yet they continue to be oppressed due to their caste and profession.” Talking about the current situation in Deonar, he adds, “There’s no security net. A straightforward approach would be to shut the dump down and convert it into a recycling ground for energy generation, where these ragpickers can be employed. That would solve environmental as well as employment issues. However, perhaps, the officials are hand in glove with the mafia...”

Mankhurd-Shivaji Nagar MLA Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party (SP) claims that he has received no support from the state government to work for conservancy workers’ welfare and shut the Deonar dump down. “The government keeps claiming on the floor of the House that it will do something about the dump, but nothing has happened for the last 1.5 years.” Chembur MLA and Shiv Sena leader Prakash Phaterpekar, too, expresses his sympathy for the conservancy workers. “They suffer from all kinds of diseases, like asthma and TB; so their health and welfare are going a priority in the upcoming election,” he adds.

Ashok Khaire, Joint Municipal Commissioner, says a committee has been formed to discuss the issue. “Closing down the dump isn’t the solution, but we are planning to convert it into a waste management plant to effectively treat solid waste and curb illegal activities. However, this will take time,” he adds. The department’s website mentions that the municipal corporation has appointed IIT-B to “give a proposal regarding slope stabilisation, identifying the area for closure, estimating the volume of methane, and designing a landfill gas collection and leachate management system”.

Left to rot in the filth

But until then, the ragpickers will have to put up with their insufferable conditions. It’s no wonder then that discontent and distrust prevails amongst them. Terrorised by the mafia, and with no strong unions or community leaders, their only priority in life is to earn enough to make ends meet.

“Ragpickers are the backbone of the informal waste management sector. In India, high-value waste items are given to raddiwallas. Waste that people don’t have any commercial interest in ends up in landfills. Ragpickers then collect and segregate this waste and take it to the right channels for recovery. Successive governments have failed to help ragpickers at any level, even though what they do is indirect social work,” says Saurabh Gupta, founder of Earth 5R, a large citizen-led environmental movement. He calls them the “the true environmentalists, the unsung heroes of sustainability”.

electiononthego

The trends from the last two elections in Mumbai South Central favour the SP. But things have considerably changed since the fire. When asked who they would want in power after the 2019 elections, nobody throws a name at me. Their only demand is a better quality of life, which comes with regular employment. But they are powerless to even exercise their franchise for fulfilling this very basic requirement — most of them don’t have voter IDs.

“I am still awaiting mine. Who knows if it will even come in time!” sighs Ahmed, who doesn’t know yet who to vote for. Nazma, whose husband also awaits his voter ID, echoes him. “They all come inside our gullies, promising to give us better lives; the truth is our lives have only worsened.” Lata, on the other hand, says she will vote for the one whose claims seem “at least a little genuine”, while Sindhu and Shaikh appear indifferent, having given up any hope of help from the government. The irony is that this hope is given to them in abundance before every election, only to be dashed later.

(The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)


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