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Ignored and harassed, Indian scavengers demand better work life

by Staff Writers
New Delhi (AFP) Nov 12, 2007
Under a thick blanket of smoke, Shahbuddin Khan sifts through a pile of rubbish to pick out pieces of glass, metal and plastic that he sells to earn about two dollars a day.

The 18-year-old is among hundreds of people who earn a living from New Delhi's largest landfill where some 3,000 tonnes of the city's waste ends up.

"This is filthy work. Sometimes we get hurt when there are syringes among hospital waste," he said as hundreds of crows, vultures and dogs hovered around the overflowing landfill in Delhi's Ghazipur area.

Khan is among the city's estimated 300,000 waste collectors -- known here as ragpickers -- who rummage through the city's rubbish to pick up metal and plastic which they sell on to recycling units.

This month, the authorities said they would organise training programmes on waste management for the ragpickers.

"Their work is hazardous for their health and so we need to look after their health, we need to see that they get proper wages," said New Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit.

The government also distributed protective gloves, masks and boots to more than 4,000 wastepickers but a majority of people, including Khan, were left out of the programme.

"Yes, we saw it on TV, but who will listen to us if we complain? What choice do we have," said Khan.

With 14 million residents and expanding rapidly, the city currently generates some 8,000 tonnes of waste daily. That figure is estimated to grow to 15,000 tonnes by 2015.

About 15 percent of the rubbish is picked up by waste collectors and recycled, while the rest goes to the three landfills.

"By separating waste, the ragpickers save the government at least 600,000 rupees (15,000 dollars) daily apart from protecting the environment by recycling trash," said Anand Mishra, programme officer with the advocacy group Chintan, which means "thinking" in Hindi.

"And the government has only boots to give them."

Poor and marginalised, waste collectors said their more pressing needs were housing, education and health care rather than protective gear.

"It is too hot here to wear plastic boots and gloves," said Lattan Khan, who picks garbage along with his wife.

"We want the government to give us land to build houses," he said outside his shanty home made of gunny sack and plastic sheets.

"We carry food from home and have it here atop the garbage as we have no time to waste," he said as he loaded a gunny sack on his back.

Khan said he had moved near the landfill from a slum which the government demolished three years ago. "Anywhere else we go, the police harass us a lot," he said.

The Ghazipur landfill was dug in the mid-1980s and is due to be closed, but a delay by authorities in finding an alternative has resulted in a huge mountain of rubbish.

The landfill supports more than 100 families who depend on the garbage for their livelihood and live in a shanty town nearby.

Most waste collectors pay five rupees (about 10 cents) daily to the guard to be allowed to pick garbage amid roars from bulldozers levelling the mountains of waste and smoke from accidental fires.

Entry to the landfill is banned for outsiders as it is government property.

"Working at a landfill is one of the most horrible jobs to do. There is no shade, no access to drinking water," said Abhay Ranjan, assistant coordinator with Chinatan.

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Oil spill in Russia an 'ecological catastrophe': experts
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