Life in the gutter: Waste pickers seek recognition in southern India


Chennai’s rubbish disposal relies on a network of lower-caste waste pickers whose task is illegal and frequently draws police harassment. The government plans to issue licenses but there are doubts it will help.

Chennai’s rubbish disposal relies on a network of lower-caste waste pickers whose task is illegal and frequently draws police harassment. The government plans to issue licenses but there are doubts it will help.

Chennai (dpa) – In Chennai’s Kottur district, where ramshackle huts are sandwiched between mounds of garbage retrieved each morning from the city’s landfills, 40 families of waste pickers inhabit 250 square metres of land.

Throughout the day, residents including Latha and her 15-year-old daughter Mythili sort through the “masala” – a term they use to denote mixed waste – for items with residual value including paper, glass and certain plastics.

These are then sold to local scrap dealers. “On a good day, we’ll make 250 rupees [less than 4 dollars],” says Latha, who like many illiterate Indians does not have a last name.

The area, known locally as Gipsy Colony, is home to members of the narikurava, a tribe indigenous to southern India’s Tamil Nadu state that ranks at the very bottom of the country’s rigid social structure.

Its traditional hunting activities were criminalized under British colonial rule, forcing the tribals to migrate to cities, where they face discrimination and extreme economic deprivation.

Worthless refuse in Gypsy Colony is either picked up by city staff or left behind, clogging the hamlet’s narrow walkways and contaminating its water supply. Respiratory problems and skin diseases are common among residents, and some have scars and open wounds on their arms and hands.

Latha says she no longer notices the sour stench that wafts through her cramped, half-storey cottage, which is one of the colony’s more established homes.

The squalor is symptomatic of a growing waste crisis in Chennai, a city of 5 million that throws out 4,500 tons of garbage each day. Its two main dumps, located in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi, are at capacity.

Waste is considered public property, leaving the people who sort through it – both at dumps and in residential areas – in a precarious situation, says Harsha Anantharaman, who has researched the city’s informal network of about 200,000 waste pickers, scrap dealers and itinerant buyers.

Now, partly thanks to an ambitious sanitation campaign announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, Latha’s community finds itself at the centre of efforts to integrate Chennai’s scavengers into its official waste management system.

The government has agreed to issue identification cards that will license waste pickers to segregate and sell garbage, as well as providing some protection from police by showing that they are part of the city’s official recycling efforts.

“Identity cards are a first step towards legitimacy for these workers, who provide an extremely valuable service to society but form its lowest rung,” says Anantharaman.

Latha was reluctant when she first heard about the initiative. Nothing good had ever come of her encounters with the authorities. “I didn’t want to give them my name,” she says, adding that she doesn’t understand the point of a licence.

Latha can think of many things that would improve her family’s life in a more meaningful way: a pension, good health care, and a uniform for Mythili, which she thinks would be more effective in discouraging police harassment.

“We already own ration cards,” she says, referring to a document she uses to buy subsidized food that is also meant to entitle her to benefits. “I can’t imagine that another piece of paper will change our situation.”

Others are also sceptical that the identification cards will have enough of an impact to improve the lives of waste pickers and alleviate the city’s garbage crisis.

“Identity cards alone won’t help – authorities need to designate vacant plots of land in the centre of the city so waste pickers can segregate closer to the source” and are not forced to do so near their homes, says Dunu Roy of the Delhi-based think tank Hazards Centre.

Chennai’s mayor recently announced an ambitious plan to introduce sorting of waste at source across the city, but activists point to the municipality’s poor track record and reluctance among private contractors paid by the ton for the waste they collect.

“There is widespread disaffection with the municipality’s efforts, and some groups have taken matters into their own hands,” says Siddhart Hande, referring to Kabadiwalli Connect, a social initiative he helped found that cuts out the middle man by putting households in touch with their local scrap dealers.

Another problem is the lack of awareness among Indians, who traditionally perceive dealing with waste as a “dirty profession” reserved for the lower castes. Activists in places like Bangalore and Pune fought for years to get families there to start using separate containers for their waste.

Unlike the many of his neighbours in Gypsy Colony, 25-year-old Suresh is open to the idea of identity cards. He can’t remember the amount of times he has been taken into police custody during his early-morning trips to the Kondungaiyur dump.

“They usually release us after about two days and never give a reason,” he says, adding that he hopes a licence will discourage such behaviour.

If Suresh had a choice, though, he would leave the waste picking business. Like many members of the narikurava, he sells jewellery and other beaded ornaments as a side venture.

“If I had access to a loan, I might be able to do this on a bigger scale,” he says, holding up an intricate black-and-white necklace with a silver clasp. “No one here choses to sort waste.”