Digging family from misfortune

Story by Kay Kemmet | Digital Media India

Writer’s note: As I approached Usha Debi, she told me she expected payment for our short interview. She saw me as an outsider, a stranger and wanted to continue sorting her trash. By the end of our conversation, though, she was in tears thanking me for listening to her story. I found Debi through a non-profit in New Delhi that works with women like her.

Trash surrounds Usha Debi. Crinkled chip bags, plastic cups and piles of folded paper.

She sits in a small square building near Connaught Place, one of Delhi’s premier shopping areas.

On a side street is her workshop, her livelihood and her hell.

As she sorts through trash bags she collected from the wealthy, tourist-filled area that morning, she puts the paper in one bin and sorts through different types of plastics, from water bottles to cell phones.

Every time she moves a pile of garbage, flies swarm the room. She alternates between shooing them away and rewrapping her pale blue scarf around her face.

Debi is a soldier in an army of 150,000 waste pickers who collect garbage by hand from the streets of New Delhi and recycle discarded paper and plastics.

She doesn’t like her job. She often gets sick from working with the trash, but can never take a day off. She’s 37 years old and has been working as a trash picker since she was 12.

She performs a public service in this city of about 23 million, but Debi has to pay off a percentage of her income to bribe officials to dig through garbage.

On a good day, she earns about 300 rupees, or $6.50. But before using her earnings to support the seven children she is raising on her own, she must fork out 500 rupees, about $11, a month to bribe local policemen and give 2,000 more rupees, about $45, to her supervisor. The payment assures they won’t lock her out of the small building where she separates recyclables from trash. The leftover income helps pay her 2,000 rupees in rent.

“If the police and everybody won’t let me sit here anymore, then I’m praying to God to help me,” Debi says in Hindi from her small trash-filled room.

Changing circumstances

Bali Charan works with Debi and waste pickers like her. He’s the organizer of All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, a union-like organization for waste pickers.

Debi and others like her are members of India’s lowest caste and are treated as a nuisance. Charan says the government and police abuse their power to take advantage of the waste pickers.

“Nobody in India accepts them,” said Charan, who works with about 25,000 waste pickers in Delhi.

The system is corrupt, but Debi said she doesn’t have any other job options. She isn’t looking for any, either. Instead, she wants society and the government to accept her and treat her like any other citizen who contributes to society.

She starts work at 8:30 a.m. every morning collecting garbage from restaurants, hotels and shops in Central Delhi.

By 9 p.m., she will have sorted the trash and traded recyclables for her daily wage. She works a 12-hour day, making less than 50 cents per hour.

After work, she buys groceries. She lives in a slum in an old and run-down part of New Delhi.

She wants her children to be educated and get decent jobs. She’s a fourth-generation waste picker, but she wants to pay for all seven to attend government schools for a better future. She doesn’t let them work.

“I don’t want them to come in this business,” Debi said.

Saving the environment

The waste pickers keep Delhi’s landfills from overflowing, according Imran Khan, assistant manager of Chintan, an environmental research and action group based in Delhi. Chintan claims to fight for waste pickers’ rights because of the benefit they provide to society.

“They are saving the environment,” he said.

Delhi generates about 8,000 tons of trash each day, the trash problem grows with the population problem.

“Trash management has been a problem always,” said Suneel Pandey, a fellow with the Centre for Environmental Studies. “In the last six or seven years, people are realizing there is a problem.”

In Delhi, about 150,000 waste pickers collect trash in addition to the government’s formal trash system, Chintan said. The waste pickers are the main force of recycling in the city.

Each day self-employed waste pickers like Debi collect 15 to 20 percent of Delhi’s refuse, according to Chintan’s statistics. Without them, greenhouse gas emissions would increase from the decomposition of the garbage, according to Khan.

“It’s a great job that the waste pickers are doing,” Khan said. “It’s very important for the environment and the government.”

Many waste pickers live in unsanitary dwellings and do not have identity proof, according to Khan. This causes another problem when the police stop them, because some waste pickers have migrated to Delhi from other places, such as Bangalore.

One of the services Chintan provides to the waste pickers is providing legal identity cards and ration cards for food and supplies.

“We try to secure the livelihood of the waste pickers,” Khan said.

Even though NGOs, such as Chintan and All India Kabadi Mazelur Mahasang, are helping Delhi’s waste pickers, Khan said hundreds are losing their livelihood.

This is Debi’s worst fear, and it makes her cry as she describes it.

Her husband died four years ago. He was an alcoholic who beat her, but she couldn’t leave him.

Now, men taunt her because she’s single. But she refuses to remarry. She wants to secure the future of her children and doesn’t want anyone to waste the money she’s earning.

She wipes tears as she talks but never stops sorting plastics into one corner, paper into another.

“I’m very sad with my circumstances,” Debi said.

Additional reporting and translating by Ekta Srivastava.

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