Under the radar: Slim pickings for waste warriors

Plummeting quantities of garbage and lockdown restrictions have hit waste-pickers

On a regular day in what has come to be known as the ‘pre-COVID era’, as most people went about their life, a section of invisible workers would start sifting through piles of garbage. With a sack on their back, this small army of waste-pickers would help reduce – even if marginally – the burden on the city’s waste management infrastructure.

Today, many of them still under the informal category without ID cards, have been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown with little or no work coming their way. Most waste-pickers The Hindu spoke to had two major challenges – reduced quantities of waste and lockdown restrictions for those who don’t have ID cards.

Amit, a native of West Bengal, is physically challenged. He came to Bengaluru just before the pandemic and is among many families settled in Hebbal who make a living as waste-pickers.

“Before COVID-19, I used to make ₹600-₹700 a day. But then the [national] lockdown was announced , which was a terrible time,” he said. A year later, he is still struggling to earn a livelihood due to the restrictions imposed by the Karnataka government in the ongoing lockdown. “Even now, because we don’t have ID cards, we go to fewer places. Also, the amount of waste appears to have come down. I barely collect enough to earn ₹300 a day. But Bengaluru is expensive. With rent and other expenses, and without regular work, it is becoming increasingly difficult,” he said.

Saiful and his wife Sanjira are out of work. Residing in Ramamurthynagar, Saibul is a waste-picker while Sanjira is a domestic help. “We came to Bengaluru two years ago. Earlier, I used to collect ₹500 worth of waste in a day. Now, the figure has reduced to ₹250. During lockdown, I can’t go to work," he said.

Waste-pickers with organisations such as Hasiru Dala are slightly better off, given that they have ID cards and uniforms. But they too rued the impact of a dip in quantities of waste.

Kumudha, who works at the Dry Waste Collection Centre in J.P. Nagar, said, “I don’t know whether people are not shopping enough or if waste is not making it to the right channels, but we are collecting only 300-400 kg a day now as opposed to two tonnes earlier. This is causing huge losses as the 12 waste-pickers at the centre have to be paid. We have so far not reduced pay, but I don’t how long we can sustain this,” she said.

According to Kumudha, no payment or work order has come from the BBMP since this January.

Pinky Chandran, trustee, Hasiru Dala said because of the lockdown, there’s limited movement on the road, therefore limited access to ‘throw waste’.

Though organisations such as hers have lent social support, those under the radar are the ones that are in dire circumstances. “When the BBMP started registering waste-pickers in 2013-14, 4,125 were identified. After that, the BBMP has registered more,” she said.

However, these numbers are said to be an underestimation.

“What we’ve seen is that the numbers are high or low depending on many factors. It is even seasonal at times. In addition, the definition of migrant is also something to think about. But it has to be one of the most marginalised sections with little access to social security,” said Ms. Chandran.

Rosey M. from Migrant Workers Solidarity Network made a case for waste-pickers to be acknowledged as frontline workers and vaccinated on priority. "They are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 because the nature of their work involves picking waste, which includes used face masks and medical wastes," she said.

(This is the second in a three-part series on the struggles of communities that have fallen through the cracks in the Karnataka government’s health machinery)

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