Lives on the scrap heap

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

Lay to waste: Ragpickers and waste collectors — people who often belong to the lowest rung of society — face difficulties in finding other sources of income   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Restrictions on the use of plastic weigh down on those who depend on it for livelihood

Sarita is a ragpicker who works in and around the area I live in. Every few days I see her foraging for plastic, paper, boxes, scraps of iron and anything else the affluent may throw away. She then takes this to the larger kabari and, in this way, earns a few hundred rupees and this allows her to eat for a few days.

Sarita’s a familiar figure; she’s been coming to this area for years. Every now and then, if someone’s car cleaner has not turned up, or if their drive needs sweeping, she’ll oblige and earn a few extra rupees.

She’s also unusual in that she’s single. In her 20s, she has no wish to marry. She lives in Badarpur with her brother and sister-in-law and, for the moment, things seem to be all right. She adds to the family income, pays for herself, and has a little leftover that goes into the running of the household. She also pitches in with the housework.

But in the last few weeks she’s been desolate. Suddenly, the scrap that is her lifeline has dried up. “Ever since the restrictions on the use of plastic,” she tells me, “I have not been able to earn any money.”

The middle-class Indian that I am, and with my concern about pollution and the environment, this is something I have never considered. I wasn’t aware of the fact that my attempt to live a plastic-free life, to not pollute the planet, can impact someone’s livelihood.

Sarita provides me with details. It’s not just her livelihood that is under threat, she says, but also that of the kabariwallahs who come round on their bicycles in the morning.

But they don’t collect plastic, I clarify.

Yes, she replies, but because the main kabariwallah, who first buys and then sells the waste, is now not earning so much because of the bans, he has lowered the rates he earlier offered the individual operators.

Plastic used to fetch ₹8 per kilo, and ragpickers could easily collect 10-12kg a day. Paper, which sold for ₹10, now goes for only ₹6-7. “The only thing the big kabariwallah now asks for is iron,” Sarita says. “But where will I get iron from? People don’t throw that away every day.”

Sitting on the steps outside my house, Sarita shares her woes with me. She hasn’t studied at all and has no wish to. She found her way to south Delhi from Badarpur by accident, seeking work. In one locality, the guards and gardeners — kind men, in her words — directed her to places where she may find scrap.

But now that it has all dried up, Sarita doesn’t know what to do next. She asks me if I can find her work. What kind of work, I ask. She says she can sweep, cook and clean but also that no one wants her to cook; perhaps it’s something to do with caste.

And there you have it: Poverty, caste, gender, all working in tandem.

As I listen to Sarita’s story, I think of a subject that has occupied many of us these last few months: The rapidly declining rate of women’s workforce participation in India, according to reports published by the International Labour Organization. Our performance is one of the worst in South Asia.

This tragic development has raised questions all round. Why are women dropping out of work? Is it because they are opting for education? Is it due to familial pressure? Is it because they fear violence?

But we’re not asking the other question: Why is it that there is no work for women? The Saritas of this world are not reluctant workers. Rather, work is what they need. When they don’t find it, they improvise; they do what they can and they put a life together. Imagine how different it would be if they actually found work that pays, even if not regular.

What will Sarita do now? Our streets will be cleaner; our cows will not die with plastic bags in their stomach, but the scrap collectors will have no scrap to collect or a livelihood.

There are no simple solutions to this issue, but perhaps it’s time to infuse the urge to lead a healthy life with concern for fellow citizens.

But let me end on a lighter note.

As she prepares to leave at the end of our chat, Sarita peers into my home where she spots piles of books. Her eyes light up. “Didi,” she says, “for books they still give ₹8 per kilo... Why don’t you give me some of these so I can sell them? I can take some every day, and at least eat one meal.”

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan


Published on October 18, 2019
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