From Barpeta To Lucknow: Journey Of Waste-Pickers
By Dr. Roli Misra & Parvin Sultana
01 March, 2015
“Mon mele moner manush mele na”.. passing by one of the slums of Lucknow this song played on a harmonium led us to an old man. Dressed in a blue checkered lungi and a white vest and sitting in his small shop, baba sang a zikr that basically meant -- we meet many in this world who come close but hardly we meet any one whom we can call our own in true sense. Children from neighbouring houses surrounded the old man. Some were sorting through rags and wastes collected from various parts of the city. On asking we got to know that these are Bengali speaking Muslims from Assam who have been working as waste pickers in Lucknow since the last 15-20 years.
It came to mind that every morning after the ring of a bell, a familiar voice calls out to pick up waste from our homes. They come to our homes, clean our toilets and drains. But did we ever look at them closely, asked them where they come from, what situation they live in? Be it scorching heat, heavy rain, or icy cold winters, they are always there to clean our city of its garbage and waste. But for most of us they are just waste pickers and for many of us they are illegal Bangladeshis. It is only on a visit to their slums, one gets an idea of the filthy condition they themselves live in. Amidst stinking filth while we struggle to stand for a couple of minutes, they live their entire lives.
Women and children play a big role in this line of work. In Lucknow the number of these waste pickers is close to 30,000. Working in unspeakable conditions they keep the cities clean and have become an important part of the informal work force. Questions regarding their status arise time and again. Can they be bracketed as labourers and hence beneficiaries of government policies? A look at their habitat points out the absolute absence of basic minimum amenities like clean drinking water, proper houses, toilets or any facility for primary health treatment. The plastic and polythene that they sell provides the material for putting up their huts. Such temporary make shift huts is a common sight in any waste pickers’ slum.
Emaciated children play with plastic bottles, wrapper of medicines and used syringes. Despite these being hazardous to health, their childhood is mired with sifting through such garbage looking for small playthings. When workers of the entire world come together on May Day to demand their rights, they are busy organizing meetings, these waste pickers go out on their regular routine work to earn their daily meal. Even after lengthy work hours from 5 a.m to 2 p.m their status continues to be ambiguous. What are they – labourers/ workers/ informal waste pickers/ environmentalists who keep the environment clean or just a poor. Poor he is such that he has to struggle to prove his poverty under the mercy of government statistics. The struggle continues when he has to prove whether he is below poverty line or not. Only then comes the issue of welfare policies of the government meant for the poor.
Waste pickers work under the public-private partnership (PPP) model under JNNURM. But this set up leaves out a large number of waste pickers who are not working under any organisation and are working in their independent capacity. A few institutions like Stree Mukti Sangathan Mumbai, SEWA Ahmedabad, Chintan New Delhi, Bengaluru Mahanagar Palika, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat Pune tried to formalize and unionize the waste pickers to improve their conditions. However no such initiative has been taken in Lucknow and most other cities.
A steady increase in population which is not supplemented by a similar increase in employment has been forcing more people in the informal sector. Almost 70% people in the urban areas are engaged in informal sector. According to a report by NCUES (2008) almost 50% household is dependent on the informal sector for their livelihood. Urbanization will lead to an increase of slums as there will be a steady need of menial workers and labourers to keep the city running. Urban development has often failed to take into account the need of human development as well. Metro cities continue to be the hub of the poorest with a large section living on the streets in abysmal conditions. While policies are many on paper, very few have been implemented to benefit the poor.
This issue is not applicable only to waste pickers but others who are involved in similar informal jobs. Eleventh five year plan focused on ensuring inclusion. This policy has been carried forward in the twelfth plan as well. Meetings, seminars have been held to discuss how development can be made more inclusive. While the slogan “Garibi Hatao” given by Indira Gandhi in 1971 has been around for the last few decades, nothing much has come out of it. Famous economist Ragnar Nurkse writing in the decade of 1950s said that “A country is poor because it is poor”. He used this sentence to explain the predicament of underdeveloped nations. He said that in poor countries low income, low expenditure and lower savings creates a vicious circle which makes it difficult for the country to break from abject poverty. But at present India cannot be dismissed as a poor underdeveloped country. With a good growth rate it is ready to take its place as one of the fastest developing countries.
Post liberalization the country saw steady growth but also a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Poor people need to be given better access to basic amenities like food, education, shelter, minimum sanitation etc. The waste pickers of Lucknow who hail mainly from the district of Barpeta in Assam portray a sorry picture of how rapid development leaves out a major section of people. Lacking any institutional safeguards they barely make ends meet. Lack of proper documents and the nature of their work deny their children education. No alternative is provided to these children who fail to benefit from Right to Education. Health problem is common as they are surrounded by toxic elements of every form.
Internal migration from Assam to other parts of India for a better livelihood is very common. But the condition of these waste pickers worsen once they move from Barpeta to Lucknow. Poverty, issues of identity circumscribed by larger question of illegal immigration makes it harder for them to work and sustain themselves. What is required is a move from rhetorical politics and a humanitarian take on the issue of these people who are stuck in the lowest rung of social ladder. Only then policies will be successful in true sense and people can break free from stigmas and move ahead.
Dr. Roli Misra is an Assistant Professor in D.B.S (PG) College in Kanpur. She has presented papers in more than 30 national and international conferences. Her interest areas are gender issues and development issues.
Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in Goalpara College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.
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