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Towards a fair future: Integrating social protection, climate justice and labour rights of waste pickers in Delhi

As global discussions on climate change intensify, there is a growing emphasis on finding solutions to, adapt to and mitigate its impacts. Among the many variables causing climate change, the increasing waste crisis emerges as a significant threat. Nowhere is this more palpable than in countries such as India, where rising consumerism has caused an unchecked increase in waste generation that has resulted in the growth of landfills. On this Labour Day, as we reflect on the contributions and struggles of the global working class, it is critical to highlight the frequently overlooked impact of the climate crisis and the insufficient social and legal protections for waste pickers. Amidst these challenges, waste pickers in India and globally deserve more attention and support.

WASTE pickers, also known as rag pickers, are individuals who collect, sort and recycle materials from the waste stream. Operating mainly in the informal economy across the globe, they navigate through landfills, dumps and city streets, recycling materials such as plastics, paper, glass and metals.

Despite the hazardous working and living conditions and social stigma they face, waste pickers persevere, driven by the necessity to earn a livelihood. It should be noted that waste pickers in India predominantly belong to marginalised communities such as Dalit, Bahujan, Pasmanda Muslim, Vimukta and Adivasi.

The role of informal waste pickers extends far beyond mere collection and sorting. They serve as the backbone of the recycling industry by diverting significant volumes of waste from landfills and incinerators. By recovering reusable materials, waste pickers mitigate the environmental impact of waste disposal, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving natural resources.

This way, their efforts contribute to the circular economy, where materials are recycled, reused and reintegrated into the production process, minimising waste generation and maximising resource efficiency.

The interconnection of waste management, climate change and environmental sustainability

Among the top three methane-emitting sectors— after agriculture and oil and gas— the waste sector stands out, accounting for roughly 20 percent of human-driven methane emissions worldwide.

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Improper disposal of waste, particularly organic waste, leads to the release of methane— a potent greenhouse gas— into the atmosphere. Landfills and dumps become breeding grounds for methane emissions that exacerbate global warming and contribute to climate instability.

Waste pickers in India predominantly belong to Dalit, Bahujan, Pasmanda Muslim, Vimukta, Adivasi and other marginalised communities.

The extraction and production of materials for manufacturing purposes consume vast amounts of energy and resources that deplete and degrade ecosystems. In contrast, recycling and reusing materials conserve energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and alleviate pressure on natural resources.

The manual waste management practices carried out by waste pickers play a significant role in mitigating climate change and advancing environmental sustainability.

The Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) devised a calculator and a methodology for quantifying the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions facilitated by waste pickers.

This tool has been widely embraced by waste picker collectives worldwide demonstrating their substantial contribution to greenhouse gas mitigation and bolstering the advocacy for recognition, support and fair compensation for their labour.

In 2020, waste pickers belonging to Colombia’s Association of Recyclers of Bogotá (ARB) prevented the emission of over 407 thousand tonnes of CO2 equivalent (eCO2), while India’s SWaCH cooperative mitigated emissions by more than 211 tons of CO2.

Climate change and waste pickers of Delhi

While climate change affects everyone globally, its impact varies across different communities. Climate change disproportionately affects marginalised and economically disadvantaged communities, with waste pickers standing among those most impacted.

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Despite their critical role in mitigating climate change and improving health and hygiene practices, waste pickers face challenges stemming from the climate crisis, along with precarious socio-economic statuses and limited access to social protection and security.

By recovering reusable materials, waste pickers mitigate the environmental impact of waste disposal, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving natural resources.

For waste pickers, climate change manifests in various ways, including disruptions to waste collection activities caused by extreme weather events such as floods, drought and heat waves.

Changes in waste composition and contamination levels due to climate-related factors further complicate waste sorting and recycling processes, heightening the occupational and health risks faced by waste pickers.

Jab paani bhar jaata hain, toh saara maal kharab ho jaata hai, jiska matlab saari kamai.” 

(When there is a flood, all the goods (collected waste) get spoiled, which means all the earnings.)

Imran, waste picker, Seemapuri (Delhi)

During Delhi’s monsoon season, the city’s streets become waterlogged due to heavy rainfall. For waste pickers such as Imran, who is a father of three, this period brings a lot of uncertainty.

He has to navigate through knee-high waters while searching for recyclable materials amidst the dirt and debris. Despite the dangers of contamination and illness, Imran continues his work, motivated by the need to support his family.

However, the rain poses challenges for him. His collected materials often get spoiled, which means he loses out on his livelihood. On average, he segregates about 20 kilograms of waste per day, and when these materials get damaged, it directly impacts his daily income.

Additionally, the heavy rain makes transportation difficult for Imran. With his waste materials, he is not allowed on buses, making it even harder for him to transport his goods and continue his work.

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Moreover, the waste that Imran stores also gets spoiled due to the rain, further exacerbating his challenges during this difficult period.

“Ab garam loo zyada lagti hai pichle saalo se, garmiyo ke mahine bhi badh gaye aur tapmaan bhi.”

(Now the heat waves are more severe than in previous years, the summer months have increased and so have the temperatures.)

—Maya, waste picker in Seemapuri (Delhi)

On the other hand, waste pickers such as Maya face tough challenges because of Delhi’s scorching heat waves that last nearly four-five months each year. Maya walks 20 kilometers every day through the city’s hot streets under the blazing sun.

Dehydration and heatstroke are constant dangers, making her already difficult job even tougher. Unfortunately, she often falls sick due to these extreme conditions.

With 10 hours of work every day, in addition to household responsibilities, Maya’s health deteriorates further during heatwaves. To combat the heat, she carries water with her when she goes out for waste collection. However, due to the lack of segregation space near the residential colony where she collects waste, similar to Imran, she has to come home to do the segregation. This adds extra strain to her already challenging routine.

Improper disposal of waste, particularly organic waste, leads to the release of methane— a potent greenhouse gas— into the atmosphere.

These challenges primarily stem from the poor working conditions characterised by extended work hours, low wages, lack of space and infrastructure for segregation and hazardous work environments.

Compounded by a lack of legal recognition and social protections, waste pickers find themselves at the margins of society, devoid of the rights and privileges accorded to formal workers.

Persistent exposure to toxins, pathogens and sharp objects poses significant threats to their physical well-being. This exposure manifests in the form of respiratory ailments, skin infections and musculoskeletal disorders. Such health concerns also tell us a lot about poor occupational safety protocols and the provision of accessible healthcare services to waste pickers.

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The stories of Imran and Maya highlight the challenges faced by at least 200,000 waste pickers in Delhi, the majority of whom are women. Living in cramped colonies without basic amenities such as water and sanitation, they reside in makeshift dwellings that serve as both their homes and workplaces. These kuccha structures dedicate a significant portion of their space to waste segregation areas.

They regularly face displacement due to inadequate housing options and facilities in the city. During heavy rainfall, the streets flood and their few possessions become soaked, and the makeshift dwelling feels unstable.

Coping with floods is incredibly challenging for the waste pickers. Despite the difficult circumstances, they struggle to stay safe and continue their work.

Similarly, the rising temperatures caused by climate change worsen the risks of heat-related illnesses and dehydration for waste pickers. As heatwaves become more frequent and last longer, the harsh conditions waste pickers work under take a toll on their health and well-being.

This highlights the urgent need for actions to reduce the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities. The waste pickers’ community living near landfills faces especially challenging conditions, as they work in environments where temperatures are much higher, and their homes are frequently destroyed by debris during heavy rainfall.

The narratives of Imran and Maya expose the intersecting challenges faced by waste pickers in Delhi and the harsh realities of their daily lives. Their stories are evidence of the urgent need for collective action to address the vulnerabilities and injustices experienced by marginalised communities such as waste pickers, who bear the brunt of environmental degradation and socio-economic inequities.

The way forward

In Delhi, waste pickers need to be at the forefront of initiatives that integrate climate-resilient waste management practices into urban plans and policies. Through collaborative partnerships with local authorities and grassroots organisations, waste picker unions and associations such as Basti Suraksha Manch and Safai Sena are making a difference.

For waste pickers, climate change manifests in various ways, including disruptions to waste collection activities caused by extreme weather events such as floods, drought and heat waves.

Through capacity-building workshops and skill development programmes, they work with waste pickers to adapt to climate change and mitigate its impacts.

While the efforts of waste picker unions and advocacy groups are crucial, the systematisation and scaling-up of these efforts require the attention and support of policymakers and the government.

It is time for policymakers to stop paying lip service to sustainability and start taking concrete actions to support waste pickers. Systematisation involves institutionalising and formalising the integration of waste pickers into municipal waste management systems, ensuring sustainability and effectiveness in the long term.

Collaboration between government agencies, waste picker unions, grassroots organisations and other stakeholders is crucial for developing comprehensive and inclusive waste management policies and programmes. This collaborative approach allows for the sharing of knowledge, expertise and resources that leads to more effective and sustainable outcomes.

Proactive measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change are essential for building climate resilience in waste picker communities. This may involve implementing disaster preparedness and response plans, providing access to climate-resilient housing and supporting community-based adaptation initiatives.

Rising temperatures caused by climate change worsen the risks of heat-related illnesses and dehydration for waste pickers. 

By integrating waste pickers into climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, policymakers can leverage their local knowledge and expertise to enhance the resilience of both urban and rural communities.

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