Understanding the absence of the worker who makes our lives easier by managing the waste we create, and suggesting ways of appreciating their work in practical ways
5 minutes read
You scramble towards your dustbin once you hear their call, shove all the random Lays and biscuit wrappers from the floor into a black trash bag, and place it at your door for the ‘kachda-waala/waali’ to collect. Your work is now over, this is just a minor occurrence in your day and so you get on with the rest. But where your interaction with your waste ends, its journey towards its final fate begins.
There are a number of different parties involved in this large scale process (municipal corporations, private contractors, and their employees- waste pickers). The jobs that lie under this broad label of ‘Waste and Sanitation’ include a non-exhaustive list of tasks such as collecting garbage from individual households; cleaning the streets; cleaning sewers and septic tanks; cleaning public and school toilets; transporting, segregating, treating, dumping the waste and so on.
Ideally, the sequence of events occurs in a ‘sustainable’ manner beginning with the collection of the waste. Following this, processes of storing, transporting, treating, and importantly- the 4 R’s we learn of in school- Reducing, Reusing, Recycling, and Recovering are undertaken. The remaining material left at the end of this process is then dumped in a landfill. However, in reality, things go wrong from before the very first step in this sustainable model- the lack of segregation at the source.
The lack of prior segregation before discarding one’s waste seeps into and affects each of the subsequent units involved in the journey of the waste. Many a time, the lack of segregation translates to unsegregated waste being dumped in its abundance at landfills which is then picked through by waste and rag pickers. These individuals function without any protective gear and are exposed to hazardous and unsafe environments that put their health and well-being in danger. Examples of this are discarded e-waste, bio-medical waste, and other harmful material that become the burden of these workers to take care of and navigate through, even if the impact of their interaction with it endangers their lives.
When we talk of segregation at the source, what we mean is, only a few of us follow the governmentally mandated rule of segregating the waste that we generate into the three different categories recommended of biodegradables. These are dry waste (plastic paper etc.) and domestic hazardous waste (diapers, mosquito repellants etc.). This blatant disregard reflects poorly on our ability to be conscious and accountable citizens. The indifference shown in not following these guidelines as well as the lack of a penalty for the same, disrespects the time, efforts, and concern for the individuals that pick up after us.
Most waste and sanitation workers are largely women who belong to lower castes and classes in the hierarchy of our Indian society and culture. The immediate dismissal and indignity associated with these forms of labour are embedded in our treatment, expectations, beliefs, and remuneration given to these workers. These workers struggle at each step in the waste management process until the very end.
Often areas around landfills are also residential spaces for a demographic that many of these workers themselves belong to, and are then constantly exposed to the negative side effects of this matter in every facet of their home and work lives. It makes us rethink our collective socialization of zero accountability and the poor treatment of those that belong to the lower rungs of society’s ladder.
The amount of waste that is generated by individual households, hospitality and medical institutions, and the public is massive in comparison to the number of workers available. Additionally, the tasks and mechanisms that are required often outnumber the personnel available as well. There are multiple possible reasons for this- the stigma and oppression associated with the job, the low wages and exploitation, the lack of adequate technology available, and training for the same, and so on. It’s often women who are employed as workers- women who have to support their families and work long, unrewarding hours to afford meals that they have to prepare themselves.
Most of us are completely unaware of this other side of a business that operates with our waste after we’re done with it. Yet, the consequences if these workers were to be absent can be seen in plain sight. Trash bags filled with waste piled up at our doorstep attracting mosquitoes and emitting foul odours over time until we finally decide to rid our thresholds of it by taking it down and dumping it into the nearest municipal bin available. Again, the waste piles up, this time attracting more than mosquitoes but other pests like rats, sometimes even cattle. These spaces become breeding grounds for filth, disease, pollution, and unpleasant smells – a direct contradiction to the clean, green city motto that leaders promise to fulfill in their campaigns. The truth reveals our limited knowledge on the journey our waste undertakes. The absence of the worker doesn’t just affect those who rely on them but the worker as well. They miss their wages, wages that are essential for them to survive if they were to miss even one day of work.
Women on their periods particularly go through a hard time when they have to work despite their discomfort. So for most, staying absent is not a viable option at all.
The human side of the waste management industry is grossly mistreated and underappreciated. Yet, we go on without sparing a second thought or a kind gesture towards these people who work so hard to keep our residential areas and cities clean.
What if you were to function in a manner- where you dispose of your waste in your community garbage can without the services of the woman who comes from her doorstep to yours and picks up your waste which ends up making your life easier; one less responsibility. All she asks for in return, like any of us would for our work and services are fair wages and equality in the dignity with which we treat her. It is time we think about the face behind our waste because we’ve contributed significantly in making it fade out behind the mounds of waste we generate.
- Satyameva Jayate: Don’t waste your garbage, 2012
- Independent: Living in Landfill, 2017
- Down to earth: Govt. notifies new solid waste management rules, 2018
- Down to earth: India’s challenges in waste management, 2019
- Medium, Swachh Coin: Waste Management in India, 2018
- Recycling Magazine: Waste management crisis in India, 2020