Pune: Gauri Dubale, a 46-year-old waste picker, removed her apron and mask after a tiring collection of garbage from 60 houses as she does every day. She could not work for a month in May-June as she was Covid-19 positive. Gauri says, “Nobody in my family had Covid-19. I know I got infected as families at the houses where I collect garbage were Covid-19 positive. Luckily, I was in quarantine for two weeks at a government facility because my family of five – I, my husband, and three kids -- stay in one room.”
“They are well-educated and higher-salaried families. But their garbage is full of unwrapped diapers of senior citizens, sanitation pads, mixed wet and dry garbage,” she complains.
Gauri is angry and irritated over people’s continued carelessness in not segregating dry and wet grabage, and not wrapping sanitary pads and marking them. She segregates garbage along with her colleagues and waits for the municipal corporation vehicle, to whom she hands over the garbage and then, returns home.
She is one of over 8,000 garbage pickers across Pune. They are not employed with Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) or PimpriChinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC). They earn by picking waste per house for Rs 60 a month. They sell plastic, paper, and iron found in garbage after segregating waste. Half the income stopped as scrap business are closed. They don’t have any financial and social security barring the co-operative SWaCH and the unions.
Over 200 waste-pickers and families of over 100 waste-pickers have been infected till now. Families of at least 300 waste-pickers had to struggle for a month of two to survive.
Zarina Khan, 55, who collects waste from various lanes in Model Colony, has knee pain and high blood pressure. Zarina lives in one-room home at the densely populated Patil Estate slum. One has to walk for 300-400 metres through a crowded lane of 5-8 ft width and clothes hanging around to reach her house. Her 10ftx10 ft home had sofa, TV, gas and other homely things.
She has stopped working since the pandemic began due to health concerns. Zarina tells, “My husband, who runs stalls during religious fairs, cannot work due to the lockdown. We don’t have income for the past seven months. We get ration from government, which is insufficient. I survive purely over charity.”
Like Zarina, over 500 waste-pickers from various parts of the city segregate garbage and earn by selling, plastic, iron and so on. Over 1000 waste-pickers, who are old or have co-morbid conditions, have stopped working as a precautionary measure. But they are also struggling to survive due to lack of income.
An activists says, “Many of them either don’t have ration cards or ration cards are not functional. They would not use ration cards earlier and now their names are not in the list. They did not connect Aadhaar with the Public Distribution System (PDS). Many don’t get ration. Majority of old waste pickers don’t get old-age pension, which is a meagre Rs 500, due to document related reasons.”
Lakshmi Narayan from SWaCH, a union of waste pickers, says, “Waste pickers of Pune, as one of the extraordinarily vulnerable groups, are particularly impacted in the context of the Covid-19 outbreak. They provide an essential service of solid waste collection, transport and sort waste of 10 lakh families and 40 lakh people on a daily basis. This puts them at a very high risk of contracting and transmitting infection.”
She adds, “Their work benefits the health of the city and supports the city’s solid waste management, yet they are unprotected due to the informal nature of their work. All waste pickers live and work in crowded public spaces, often without adequate facilities to protect them from infections. Family members of waste pickers, who are often daily wage or informal sector workers, are unable to find work during the lockdown. With Pimpri-Chinchwad and Pune being two of the cities hardest-hit by Covid in the nation, it is vital to support the waste pickers and their families, as they continue to work to keep our cities clean and safe.”
Ashwini Nerke, a waste picker who stays at Patil Estate and works at Kasaba Pethin, Pune, tells a similar story: “I was quarantined after contracting Covid-19 at a government facility. My husband is a labourer who has no job. I earn Rs 4,000-5,000 per month and have to run a family of five that stays in one room.”
“My knees, back and hands regularly pain due to picking up and carrying garbage. I have to take pain killer injection every fortnight,” she added.
Waste pickers are members of either Kagad Kach Patra Kasthakari Panchayat (KKPKP) or SWaCH. KKPKP and SWaCH help them get sanitizers, masks, aprons, and soaps. The municipal corporations of Pimpri-Chinchwad and Pune are supposed to provide these things to waste pickers under the Solid Waste Management Act (2016), but they fail to do so many a times.
The municipality officials did not respond to questions regarding what facilities were being provided to waste pickers.
(Varsha Torgalkar is an independent journalist based out of Maharashtra.)