India’s invisible green warriors

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India’s invisible green warriors

Nilanjana Bhowmick writes about India's unknown environmentalists: waste-pickers.


Waste pickers at a rubbish dump in New Delhi November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Magazines often write that old Indian homes from the country’s colonial past are wonderful. They usually have elegant, long, iron stairs at the back. These were for the sweepers or the waste pickers to use to collect waste. Mostly they were from the lower castes (the dalits or so-called ‘untouchables’). In my parents’ 1980s house, we didn’t have a back staircase.

My parents were middle-class, educated professionals but they also felt it necessary to wash the stairs after Cheyt Lal, our waste picker, collected the rubbish and cleaned the toilets. In 2019 my modern highrise is full of couples with iPhones and expensive clothes. They still drop their waste during the daily collection into the waste picker’s drum from a safe distance and they make sure they don’t touch the person.

This discrimination affects India’s around two million waste pickers. They clean up our cities and they are also the invisible green warriors who save the environment. They stop plastic waste going into rivers and oceans. India has nearly 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day and it’s the 15th-biggest plastic polluter.

A study found that 10 river systems are responsible for 90 per cent of the plastic in the ocean. Eight of them are in Asia, including the Ganges. India recycles as much as 80 per cent of its plastic waste, thanks to its waste pickers.

India’s strict caste system puts waste pickers at the bottom. In 2016, Khokhan Hamid got the United Nations Climate Solutions Award for training waste pickers to safely collect and dispose of electronic waste. A year earlier, they chose another Indian waste picker, Mansoor Ahmed, to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But in India, the waste pickers are invisible and unheard.

Recently, the first garbage café opened in an eastern Indian city. It offers waste pickers a free meal in exchange for rubbish used to build roads. So, after years of cleaning up our cities, speaking at the UN, and leading the fight against India’s rubbish, all they can look forward to is one meal a day.

Our waste pickers do their work with lots of rubbish without training or protective clothing. This is a problem as Indian families do not really separate their waste. Biomedical and other hazardous rubbish is often mixed up with other household trash.

A 2016 law says households must wrap sanitary waste safely and dispose of it separately. But no one usually does this. Many people do not even know about the law or what to do, for example, using separate rubbish bins.

A 2017 report published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology found most waste pickers complained it was difficult for them to breathe and they had bad coughs and stomach problems, including nausea, dysentery, and pain.

Surely our waste pickers deserve better than this? They deserve proper jobs with training and health benefits for helping with the war against climate change, a problem that is going to be there for our world in years to come. We need to recognize them as the green warriors they truly are.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)