It is estimated that India generates 65 million tonnes of waste each year and is home to more than 4 million waste pickers. Predominantly women, this army of waste pickers or Safai Saathis is the backbone of traditional waste management in most Indian cities.
Despite this, Safai Saathis have not found their legitimate space in India’s development discourse. When the government announced measures during the pandemic to support frontline workers, the waste picker community remained conspicuous by its absence. This is particularly disheartening as they continue to collect and sort through rising mounds of potentially dangerous waste including masks, hazmat suits, and plastic face-shields.
Ragpickers actually complement the work of civic bodies, Shashi Bhushan Pandit, who runs the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh. According to the law under which a municipality is set up, it places dustbins according to the size of the population. It is assumed that the generator of the waste will drop it in the bin. After that, it is the responsibility of the municipality to collect it from there (the transfer station) and treat it at the landfill. However, it is not the responsibility of the municipality to pick up the garbage from the source. That’s why the informal sector has filled this gap.
Issues associated with waste pickers
- More than 90 per cent of the workers reported owning an Aadhaar card in line with broad national trends but only a tiny subset owned an income, caste, or occupation certificate.
- This thwarts any attempts at formalising their work and limits their access to government social security schemes. Less than 5 per cent of those surveyed had any health insurance, indicating very high degrees of health-shock vulnerabilities.
- Of those Safai Saathis who had a bank account, only 20 per cent were linked to the Jan Dhan Yojana, the government’s flagship financial inclusion programme.
- Half of the sample reported owning and using a ration card and this proportion was even smaller in cities where migrants formed a larger share among surveyed workers.
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