Friday, 17 December 2010

Guest Post: Profile of a Rag Picker

This is a guest post by Rachel Leven, a Fulbright scholar based out of New Delhi. She is currently researching 'Decentralized Waste Management' and as part of the research, travels around Delhi meeting people, NGOs, professors, and companies working in the sector. For more info check out her blog,

As Shalabh touched on in his last post, Delhi is a place where contradictions are piled on contradictions. The ruins which dot the city are the dull carcasses of a gold glittered age. Once home to emperors, in Delhi they are often just another geographic marker in a slum. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine whether this is a travesty or the romantic march of time. In any case walking in this city it’s good to remain open to anything the might come up. After visiting the unusually clean and ordered Begumpur Mosque we ran into a living relic overseeing her humble empire of trash just a few blocks away. Since my expertise is waste management we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a bag of peanuts, served in a recycled magazine page, with Maya and her band of sweepers.
Maya by her Trash
At first glance the street is a dump. Goats dressed in old sweaters and chickens wander between the bins and garbage bags on either side of the road, a dusty side street leading to a simple crematorium. At 2:59 pm the site makes a comedy of Delhi Waste Management’s sign claiming, ‘Zero garbage zone 13 to 15 hrs.’ However on closer inspection Maya runs an ordered and cleanly operation. Segregated bags of waste are piled high and covered with a plastic sheet, waiting for the broker’s next visit. Although the day’s un-segregated waste is picked over by the goats, the garbage they dislodge is sure to be picked up soon. Maya sits close to the ground on a short stool. Surrounding her are five lounging men; aside from her husband, they are all sweepers hired by Delhi Waste Management, a city contracted company, to sweep the neighborhood streets and deliver their bags to the dustbins at this location.

Goats and Chicken feeding on day's trash

About 65 years old, Maya has been watching over this street for 25 years.  She hails from a rural village just a few hours away from New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh. After marrying she moved to this slum community of Begampur Harijan Basti in Delhi. Before claiming her corner Maya jumped around the city, working mostly with garbage. She eventually struck a deal with the neighborhood surrounding Begampur. In return for keeping the road to the crematorium clean, she would be allowed to use the space to collect and segregate the area’s waste.
Mam Chand (L) with a sweeper (R)
This was no easy job. Maya says that back then the road was a favored spot for street shitting. “The crap was up to here,” says Maya’s husband Mam Chand, waving his hand by his knee. To break the neighborhood of its bad habits Maya took to sleeping on the crematorium road. When residents snuck out to take care of their business in the cover of the night, she chased them down. She remembers, “I carried a big stick with me and would chase them and then ask them to pick up their mess themselves.”  Although she still sleeps in her makeshift home on the road, after more than two decades of guardianship the street is clear and no one is breaking the rules. However, just off the temple’s main drag and outside Maya’s jurisdiction, we found enough fresh material to convince us that her rule is far from obsolete.

Garbage waiting to be segragated
In exchange for her commitment to keeping the road clean Maya is spared hassling by police and no one is allowed to cannibalize her business. Her presence on the block is so strong that when the municipality built cement dust bins to collect the neighborhood’s trash, they built them next to her operation. When the municipality and then the contracted private firm set up their operations they employed the expert, Maya, to ensure that the area around the dustbins remained clean.  This turns out to be a big task as Mam Chand pointed out to us. Although he had cleaned the bins at the other end of the road that morning, there was already a solid mass of garbage collecting around the half empty metal containers. He says the neighbors used to be better about their trash, but with the coming of plastic bags and other disposable packaging people stopped caring about the value of what they dropped, and where they dropped it.

Maya and her husband live a life with one foot in the formal sector, but with little security. According to Maya, Delhi Waste Management currently pays herself and her husband a total wage of 1000 rupees a month. In addition, they make 2000 to 2500 rupees/ month selling plastic bottles and any other valuable waste they can segregate to a broker from the company. The going rate for an unbroken glass bottle is 1 rupee but they don’t often find such valuable material. Their money is made in thin plastic and plastic bottles, 3 rupees/kg and 50 paise respectively. There is also a little money to be made selling the meat of their goats. And there are the chickens, Maya pulled back the door of what I thought was a stack of card board to reveal a comfortably roosting hen.

Although the prices of materials ebb and flow with the market, Maya says that wages have remained about the same for the last 10 years, and in fact were lowered from 1200 when the city contracted out. Maya and her band of sweepers suspect that much more money has been allocated to them but that it is lost in “brokering,” as she diplomatically referred to Delhi’s corruption. All in all it doesn’t add up to much. Mam Chand says, “we make a total of 3 thousand a month, its barely enough to keep two people going on food, milk costs 22rps a liter so that tells you how well off we are.” Although goat’s milk might help Mam Chand save some rupees, there are also medical expenses to consider, like Maya’s appendix operation which cost them 75000 rps. And there is their one child, a widow supporting three children of her own. Their daughter lives in another section of the city but often returns looking for help. “You have to support your kids,” says Maya with a heavy shrug.

Maya sleeps outside to protect the street and her garbage.

Maya and her men are just a small piece of the many layered and complicated system of waste in India. Getting paid a wage brings them closer to a stable way of life, but it’s hardly enough to get by. Any changes to the system, such as the collection of unsegregated waste for waste-to-energy programs, or even a change in habits like better segregation and consumption habits on the part of residents poses a threat to their stability.

Despite this Maya looks over her road with proud resolution. It is her space. One of the young sweepers joked that she was Panchali , meaning a wife to all of them.  Maya was quick to respond, “I live alone here in the night. You come here and I’ll tell you whose wife I am. I have a dagger and I’ll drive it through you.”
With her wit and command it’s not difficult to imagine Maya in another setting, manipulating her self-built corporation from behind an oak desk and far from the grandmother that squatted on the wicker stool before us. But even without the trappings of an empire, she is still the boss and her life will pass on that corner, amongst the trash that is her legacy.

1 comment:

  1. Maya's complain/fear is that the 'stability' she has somehow managed should not be disturbed. That hurts, I almost cried while reading it.