■ As the recent World Cup soccer games proved, a major international sporting event has the power to bring countries together, improve living conditions for thousands and give an entire city a makeover that benefits it for years to come.
__Sometimes, though, the same games that propose to bring us together manage to rip us apart.
__This year in October, India’s capital, New Delhi, will host the Commonwealth Games, a multinational, multi-sport event held every four years, featuring thousands of elite athletes from members of the Commonwealth of Nations. But in the shadow of this event, which will be hosted with much fanfare and attention, lie the broken dreams and unfulfilled aspirations of thousands.
CLEANING UP THE CITY
Banav Bibi, a door-to-door garbage collector and waste picker, sorts through trash in the D block of New Delhi’s posh Sunder Nagar colony. Plastic bags will sell for five rupees ($0.10) per kilogram. Scraps of paper for 1.25 rupees ($0.02) per kilogram. Glass, one rupee per kilogram. Tin, two rupees. Packets of chips, nothing. Some kinds of plastic just won’t sell.
__There are approximately 150,000 waste pickers in New Delhi alone, who collect the garbage the city throws out and sort through it for recyclable material. Constituting one percent of the city’s population, they are forced by poverty and discrimination into the community dumpsters and landfills, where they start work early, making between 150 and 300 rupees ($3.20–$6.40) a day. Some start as young as age 6.
__“It’s so disgusting, this work,” says Bibi. “But does the stomach listen? We can’t get any other work, that is why we are here.”
__In an attempt to make the city greener and cleaner for the Commonwealth Games in October, the Indian government has been experimenting with several new ventures, including a plan to privatize the city’s waste-collection systems. Until now, this work has been handled by the informal sector, which is not recognized by the government and includes people who pick trash in the landfills, the door-to-door collectors, and two levels of middlemen who sell plastic, paper and metal to factories to be recycled.
__Bibi collects waste and scrap from people’s homes, taking what she thinks will sell and depositing the rest in the dhalao. It’s here, in this dumpster, that most of the door-to-door waste collectors do their sorting and segregating. A couple of times a day, workers of the municipality empty out the contents of the dumpster into a truck and transport it to one of the city’s landfills.
__Traditionally, the municipality’s role in cleaning the city—apart from sweeping the streets—has been to transport the garbage from the dumpster to the landfill, a task they felt they weren’t doing very well and have been trying to privatize for years. All the other steps in the process have been handled by the informal waste pickers.
__But a few months ago, the city government started eyeing door-to-door collection for privatization in a couple of zones in New Delhi. This is bad news for the waste pickers, says Bharati Chaturvedi, director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a New Delhi–based NGO, “Because it ensures that there is no room for the urban poor to still find a living in privatization.”
But officials disagree. “Look around you,” says Ram Pal, councilor at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). “The city is filthy and the government staff reeks of inefficiency. Thirty to 40 percent of the workers never even show up to work because they’re guaranteed a government job and can’t be fired. Privatization will allow us to streamline certain processes and make the city’s trash collection run smoothly.”
__“I think what’s going to happen is exactly what we’ve seen till now—is that [the waste pickers] will continue to work under even more terrible conditions,” Chaturvedi says. “People who pick up the trash are people with very few options. Suddenly, from being an informal person you’ve become an illegal person, and I think that’s the big shift that happens. So the only way to become legal is to become a worker of the municipality.”
LIFE ON THE LANDFILL
Fifteen-year-old Sheikh Azhar will never go to school. He went once, in his village near Kolkata, and studied until fifth grade. They taught math, which he liked, and social sciences, which he didn’t.
__He says there’s a school over the mountains of rubbish where the landfill ends, a free government-run school. But Azhar doesn’t want to go. “When I first came, there was no one to teach us,” he says. “Now they have someone who comes every day, but where is the time?”
__Because of the recession, it’s been a particularly difficult year for recyclers and waste pickers across the spectrum, with prices of recyclable waste materials declining by as much as 50 percent worldwide. In a survey conducted by Chintan, 80 percent of waste-picker families interviewed said they had cut down on luxury foods, which they defined as milk, meat, and fruit. Approximately 41 percent said they had stopped purchasing milk entirely.
__“It’s total desperation here,” says an MCD worker as he looks at the municipal truck dumping its garbage, watching a swarm of waste pickers rushing forward to get what they can find. “These people are so poor, they’ll take anything that might even sell for one rupee—shoes, bags, even cloth. The government doesn’t really care what happens to them. As long as the city gets clean for the Games.”
There’s also disease. Chintan estimates that more than 82 percent of the women and 84 percent of the children who work as waste pickers are severely anemic. Most of them are prone to respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to dust and gastrointestinal diseases caused by eating in unclean surroundings or eating food from the landfill itself. There’s also the unknown fever and nausea that Chaturvedi says many of the workers complain about, which is likely the result of working and living in hazardous conditions and being malnourished.
__It seems easy to understand why the government would want to, quite literally, clean up its act, and start hiring outside agencies to alleviate the headaches of child labor, environmental hazards and health problems, but NGOs contend that privatization would create new problems without really solving the old ones. “We all have this notion that privatization means efficiency and a solution, but we don’t realize that privatization has an economic impact, a social impact, and an ecological impact,” says Vimlendu Jha, founder of the environmental and social welfare nonprofit group Swechha. He’s also quick to point out the city government saves 600,000 rupees daily in waste-disposal costs.
__Furthermore, the waste pickers are the single largest factor in helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other new technology in the city. A report released last month by Chintan’s research team shows that New Delhi’s informal trash sector reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 962,133 tons of carbon dioxide each year—over three times more than other waste projects slated to receive carbon credits in the city. That means the savings are equivalent to removing roughly 175,000 passenger vehicles from the roads annually or providing electricity to about 130,000 homes for one year.
__In addition, contracts between the MCD and private contractors state that the contractor has a target to recycle 20 percent of the waste in its eighth year of operation. The informal waste pickers are already recycling up to 60 percent of that waste today.
__The MCD has recommended that the new private players use the services of the existing waste pickers, according to a senior official in the MCD, but it will make no effort to ensure that it is implemented.
__“When you say privatization, you presume that no private actors are already in operation, but there are,” Chaturvedi says. “The waste pickers are entrepreneurs. The point is to recognize their entrepreneurship.”
__In April 2009, Colombia’s Constitutional Court did just that, voiding a contract for private collection that had cut off waste pickers’ access to the landfill. Brazil, too, has recently recognized the legitimacy of informal waste collection. “We would like identical forms of inclusion in India,” Chaturvedi says.
It’s almost noon, and Bibi is finally finished for the day. She’s going home, but her sons will continue to collect more waste and scrap until late in the afternoon. She describes her home as a place where, if someone died, there would be no space to take out the body. Eleven people live in her small house in the Seemapuri slum, where, with an income of 150 rupees a day, she’s the richest resident, with a home made of concrete walls. The entire family works in the scrap business; only her youngest daughter has ever gone to school.
__Inside the house, Bibi’s three-day-old grandson sits on a social worker’s lap. He will not get into this trade, she says. He will study and go to school and not do the dirty work of his grandmother.
__Outside, the sorting continues. [bw]