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Meet the unsung heroes of waste management – rag-picker women

Anant Tiwari
posted on 8th June 2018
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Littered roads and ineffective solid waste management are probably two of the worst externalities of economic advancement, especially in developing nations like India. Thankfully for us, slum-dwelling women, commonly referred to as ‘rag-pickers’, have turned the litter of India into a means of livelihood to sustain their families. These women collect recyclable wastes from the roadside and sell it to feed their family. By virtue of necessity, these rag-pickers unknowingly ensure that recyclables, which otherwise would be collecting along the roads and fields, contaminating the environment, reach the recycling process.

In India alone, there are approximately 4 million women in this profession. However, this huge number in no way implies that it is a comfortable profession in any way. A typical day in the life of a rag-picker consists of her heading out to work between 2 and 3 am, walking for nearly 8-10 km in harmoniously mutually agreed upon territories, scavenging in dumpsites and alleyways, and bending a minimum of 1,000 times to collect nearly 20 kg of recyclable waste with their bare hands from our city’s streets. She then carries it in large bags on her head and shoulders, sorts it at her place, and sells this sorted waste to community pithas (waste collection centres), earning nearly Rs 100-140, enough for the hand-to-mouth survival of her and her family.

The saddest and possibly the most ironic part of their story is that even after rendering this phenomenal service, these women are denied both their dignity and fair remuneration by our society. Worse still, their job is considered menial and they themselves are treated as untouchables by a large section of our society.

Consider a simple aspect of their livelihood to understand the exploitation that these women undergo every day. Taking advantage of their illiteracy and poverty, a majority of middlemen dealers purchasing the recyclables exploit these women through rigged scales and lower-than-fair prices. A woman collecting 20 kg of waste at a market rate of Rs 8/kg should have been paid Rs 160 ideally. But her collection is weighed at 18 kg and she is offered Rs 6/kg which reduces her returns to Rs 108 only. Imagine – the poor woman loses almost 60 percent of her deserved remuneration, every single day.

Due to unfair practices as cited above, many of these women get stuck in a credit-commodity trap where they have to take credit from the middlemen to meet their exigencies and are consequentially bound to sell recyclables to them, even if they are offered a lower price. Since the waste management sector in India is largely unorganized, these women do not have the required bargaining power against such practices.

Geetaben Gaylabhai, one of the many ragpickers working every day in India.

The monetary injustice cited above often takes a toll on their health and well being also. They hardly ever get to relax and unwind from their strenuous and mundane routine. They are unable to offer a good education to their kids and are always busy making two ends meet. As we proudly host the World Environment Day in India this time, let us take a moment to salute these champions of our environment who silently render their services to us irrespective of all that is meted out to them.

Since saluting won’t suffice, let us also commit to whatever we can do to better their condition. Surprisingly, no matter how humongous the problem may be, its solution is quite simple and does not really require a lot from us. The biggest problem of waste management in India is that almost 85 percent of our dry and wet waste is commingled due to which neither the wet waste remains compostable nor the dry waste recyclable. Consequently, the messy mixture has to be dumped in landfills where it decays for centuries and causes immense pollution. At the same time, our dry waste is not entering the recycling chain.

Consider a different situation if we were to segregate our household waste at home, at its source. There would be a huge jump in the volume of dry waste available for recycling. The rag pickers would then have a chance to become uniformed waste managers who would collect our segregated waste from our homes each morning. The sheer volume will ensure better earnings to them and save them from having to rag pick at all. The wet waste will be compost-able which will be another gift to the environment. All in all, a win-win proposition for all stakeholders. Simply put, de-centralised waste segregation at the household level is the one-stop solution to all the problems of waste management, be it w.r.t rag pickers or the environment.

There are a number of organizations that are doing great work with and for the rag picker women and also trying to create awareness towards waste segregation at source. Of these, SEWA in Ahmedabad, SWaCH in Pune, and WOW (Well-being Out of Waste) in Bengaluru are some prominent names. Another inspiring initiative taken by a group of alumni from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand is Paryavaran Mitra, an NGO based in Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad. You can follow and support their work on their website and Facebook page.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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