The most crucial link in the waste management system of our country — the waste picker — is in a limbo thanks to the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 virus.

By any reckoning, the function of these pickers qualifies as an essential service since they undertake door-to-door collection in areas where they operate. Unfortunately, many waste pickers find that they have to report for work due to pressure from their employees but reaching their workplace safely is an ordeal due to harassment by the police.

Others, who work casually at dump sites and landfills and earn on a daily basis by selling the dry garbage they collect, find all waste buying and recycling activity at a standstill, jeopardising their livelihood and, in the present context, their very next meal.

It’s not as if the government is unaware of the key role they play. As far back as 1995, a Report of the High-Power Committee on Solid Waste Management constituted by the Planning Commission called for integration of waste pickers into the system. Later, in 1998. an Expert Group constituted by the Supreme Court echoed the same recommendation. The latest Solid Waste Management Rules and Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, also recognise the contribution of waste pickers and hold that they be included in the solid waste management of local bodies.

But it seems waste pickers have not been taken seriously enough for they have not been included in any disaster management plan of the administration. And though thousands are working across the nation even during the lockdown, they are unable to sell the dry waste and earn a living.


“We have written to Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. During the lockdown he has announced ₹5,000 to be given to every construction worker, public transport driver including autos, taxis and e-rickshaws, to compensate for their loss of work. But the CM has not included waste pickers in the informal sector despite the fact that they carry out one of the most vital services in the Capital,” says Chitra Mukherjee, Head Advocacy and Policy, at Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, which works closely with waste pickers in Delhi. She has also urged the Chief Minister to appeal to all resident welfare associations, campuses and institutes to offer dry rations, soaps and masks to the waste pickers as they have received no protective equipment so far. “Informal waste pickers help recycle approximately 66 per cent of solid waste in our cities and help us fight diseases daily. In essence, they end up doing part of the work of municipalities, by subsidising the urban services that we all benefit from,” adds Mukherjee.

At the national level, the Alliance of Indian Wastepickers, which comprises over 20 waste picker organisations, has demanded help from the Prime Minister who, in his address to the nation, called sanitation workers defenders of the nation. In the appeal, the Alliance writes, “Even though the prices of the commodities i.e. waste paper, plastic, cardboard, junk metal, have gone down significantly, we have not left our work. We, the waste pickers and informal waste collectors, along with the other sanitation workers, are the first lines of defence against the spread of the disease. Due to the nature of the work, many of our colleague waste pickers and informal waste collectors have low immunity. We earn our livelihood on a day-to-day basis, which does not leave us with the luxury of working from home.”

Neither food nor water

Mukherjee points out that waste pickers are not migrants. They stay put where they work. Ideally, kitchen camps should have been set up in their communities as some of them live in areas where they have to walk many kilometres to a free food camp. In fact, many of them walk upwards of 1.5 km to access the free meals being served by the government or voluntary organisations. But on the way, they are often stopped by the police and find the food has run out by the time they reach free food distribution centres set up at schools. The first five days of the lockdown were highly trying times for the waste picker communities in Delhi’s Mahipalpur and Rangpuri Pahari area. Balmukund, who is Co-ordinator of the Safai Sena Welfare Foundation, which has on its rolls around 15,000 members, says that the area depends on water tankers, which failed to turn up. “The irony was that when everyone was being advised to wash their hands, waste pickers did not even have water to drink because the tankers forgot us,” says Balmukund. Luckily, last week, a tanker came and he is hoping the service will continue.


‘Covidmekabadi’ campaign


Chintan and other organisations in the country have also started online campaigns to garner support and resources for waste pickers. Chintan’s campaign ‘Covidmekabadi’ is an appeal for funds to buy dry ration kits for around 5,000 waste-picker families. It is also educating and demonstrating to the communities’ children at its 18 informal learning centres on the rules to be followed to avoid the coronavirus spread. Women and children are being trained as well to upcycle old cotton clothes and turn them into handkerchiefs and masks.


Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru has initiated a campaign to raise funds for its “green collar workers”. It has identified 2,500 waste-picker families in five cities and towns of Karnataka and is seeking monetary help to provide care kits of dry rations for these families. It also recently started working in Coimbatore, Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu and Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh.