Saving waste: The lives of India's rag pickers
The millions of rag pickers that search for recyclable garbage keep India’s cities cleaner. But the public still shuns them, says filmmaker Parasher Baruah.
November 10, 2009
Allianz Knowledge: You have made a documentary about rag pickers, people living off what others throw away. Why this topic?
Parasher Baruah: There are more than 300,000 rag pickers in Mumbai of which 120,000 are kids below the age of 14. They come from different parts of the country, because the rural economy has not been able to sustain them. If they have no other support system, then they invariably end up doing this work.
But in India, the people who handle our waste are invisible: we do not know them and do not acknowledge their role in our society. Acorn India, the NGO that supported my project, wants to change this. And these people should be looked at as carbon assets. They are negating our carbon footprint.
You followed three kids for several months. What are their lives like?
It is difficult to do a film with rag pickers. They simply don’t have time. Every hour that they don’t work, they are losing money. Some kids start at five in the morning and work until eight or nine in the evening.
They go to different parts of the city, pick up waste, come back and sell it to the scrap dealers, and then go out again. The kids were working almost every time I saw them. On average they earn two Euros a day.
They would look for various grades of plastic, different kinds of metal, glass, anything that can be sold for a price to a recycler. That recycler will then turn it into plastic pellets or stuff that can be used as raw materials by bigger industries.
Scenes from Parasher Baruah's documentary "Waste"
What dangers do the rag pickers face?
They are exposed to medical waste and all kinds of noxious gases. And they burn a lot of e-waste—computers and circuit boards—just to extract copper, because copper will sell for much more than plastic. This creates noxious fumes they are exposed to.
The three boys we followed do not have any idea of protection. They go barefoot and work without gloves. Even if they fell sick, they wouldn’t realize that it was because of what they are doing.
Some of the older rag pickers suffer from respiratory problems and tuberculosis is very common. Many develop Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Why is there so little protection?
Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Mumbai, is a huge recycling industry, but it all exists in an unregulated manner. They do not have licenses and they have pathetic working conditions.
Some 50 percent of Dharavi exists without any kind of legal sanction and yet rag pickers and scrap dealers there are recycling almost 80 percent of Bombay’s waste.
So here is the contradiction: they are operating in an illegal manner, but they are still providing a lot to our society. But whenever they try to assert themselves and demand certain rights, they are told by the authorities that they do not have any legal rights.
What about the official waste management system, could it cope with the problem?
Sadly in major cities in India we do not have good waste management policies. All the waste ends up in landfills, but there is no idea of recycling, no one is trying to separate the plastic from the biodegradable stuff.
All that the municipal corporations do is dump it, and once landfills become saturated they just close them and turn them into some kind of real estate. But the land is still contaminated.
8 examples of India's struggle with waste
Liquid Dumps (1/8)
A Hindu devotee takes a holy dip in the polluted waters of the Yamuna river in northern India. India has spent nearly 500 million dollars on waste-treatment stations along the river, but pollution levels doubled from 1993 to 2005.
Nearly 80 percent of the river's pollution is the result of raw sewage. The river receives more than three billion liters of waste per day, according to the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment.
Waste Management (2/8)
A boy looks for recyclable materials on a beach in Mumbai. With a population of over 1 billion people, and a fast growing urban society fashioning its lifestyles after the West, massive increases of waste seem unavoidable in India.
Disposal of waste in a country where municipal waste management systems are already weak will become a problem of severe proportions.
Polluted Seas (3/8)
A child walks through plastic waste on a sea front in India's financial capital Mumbai. Non-organic waste dumped in rivers and sewers invariably ends up in India's seas.
India's rapid urbanization is aggravating the situation culminating in a rise in waste from less than 40,000 metric tons per year in 2000 to over 125,000 metric tons by the year 2030, according to the environmental advocacy group Srishti.
Living on a Landfill (4/8)
An Indian boy collects plastic bags from a heap of garbage in the Indian city of Allahabad. Shreekant Gupta of the Delhi School of Economics estimates that losses from environmental pollution are equivalent to about 4 percent of gross domestic product.
Poorly maintained landfill sites are prone to groundwater contamination. Open dumping of garbage creates conditions ripe for disease vectors such as flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats, and other pests.
Health Hazard (5/8)
A boy plays in a garbage dump where hundreds of people stay and make a living out of recycling waste and making charcoal. In many developing countries, rag pickers provide a crucial service to society, but often lack recognition and social security. Unaware of health risks, they spend their days inhaling toxic fumes or exposed to poisonous waste products.
Organic Waste (6/8)
Birds fly over a burning garbage dump in search of food on the outskirts of New Delhi. Incineration is often no option in India, because average waste content does not provide enough fuel value and needs auxiliary fuel or energy. Composting organic materials, however, could reduce the amount of material dumped by 50 percent, estimates Gopal Krishna of the Delhi-based Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health.
A worker cleans spare parts at an automobile recycling shop in Mumbai. Indian workers earn between 150 Rupees and 200 Rupees (around $3 to $5) a day working in the city.
Without education and other economic prospects, millions of India's poor urban migrants have to make a living as rag pickers. They roam the streets looking for recyclable materials that can be sold to scrap dealers.
Slumdog Millionaire (8/8)
Shahrukh Munshi, who acted in the multiple Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire", plays with friends at Nehru Nagar slums in Mumbai.
The movie brought the tough life of India's poorest onto the big screen. Portions of "Slumdog Millionaire" were shot in the Nehru Nagar slums.
Has this been going on for a long time?
We have had waste pickers for a long time, in Dharavi for at least 60 years. Actually, people in Dharavi are living on top of waste. Mumbai was seven different islands and a lot of marshland and sea in between, land which was later ‘reclaimed’ with waste landfills.
For the past 35 years people in Dharavi have been filling up the land and now it has become an attractive piece of real estate. Now the people who created the land may have to move out.
Has the situation become worse with India’s rise to economic power?
In the past ten years, because of changed packaging and lifestyles, waste has definitely increased. We did not have so much plastic packaging ten years ago. So the nature and the scale of waste have changed.
While I was making the film I tracked how much waste I generate on a daily basis. It was shocking. In spite of trying to avoid it, I was still generating so much plastic waste.
Do you think your movie can make a difference?
We show the film to school kids. We feel only through school kids can we reach every household in Mumbai. Its simple stuff like segregating dry and wet waste, we don’t have that practice yet. Later, we want to show the film in every big city in India to create awareness.