Living next to Delhi’s trash mountain: Policies should focus on easing the struggles of waste pickers

These workers have no feasible access to social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and, most importantly waste sorting centres

By Shalaka Chauhan
Published: Tuesday 08 August 2023
Women working at these landfills are more likely to encounter health risks since they are predominantly engaged in sorting waste. Photo: Shalaka Chauhan

I have been visiting two waste pickers’ hamlets adjacent to Bhalswa landfill site, Delhi — Shradhanand Colony (Bhalswa dairy) and Bhalswa village — for many years. I first met Jameela when she volunteered to be part of a discussion I was conducting with a group of women waste pickers on the various risks of working near the Bhalswa landfill. I have met her several times since then. 

Jameela collects the landfill waste disposed of by private company vehicles and segregates it into different categories. She later sells to junk dealers.  

“Earlier, I used to work in a coal mine. When I lost that job, I came to Delhi and became a waste picker. My entire family and fellow villagers have been engaged in this occupation for years. It really seemed easy to start, but now it’s hard to exit,” she said.

Jameela, who has lived next to the landfill for 25 years, shared her challenges during one of my recent visits, particularly her depleting vision. Her eyesight has become very poor and has been noticeably deteriorating over the past 12 years. She believes that it is due to the exposure to the hazardous gases she has to deal with daily while managing the waste.

“I am in the process of losing my eyesight. We noticed it in the initial stages, and we all know the reason, but do we have any other option? she asked.

Delhi generates approximately 10,000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually. Roughly 55 per cent of the MSW generated in the city ends up in three sanitary landfill sites (Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla), according to Draft Delhi Master Plan, 2041.

Bhalswa landfill, which sprawls over 70 hectares, is home to over 400 waste picker families. These workers contribute significantly to the city’s environment, economy and health by segregating and recycling waste at one of the largest landfills. But they are the first to suffer the harmful consequences of working at the landfill and living so close to it. 

Women (like Jameela) are more likely to encounter health risks since they predominantly sort waste at landfill sites. These sites are filled with gases like methane and carbon dioxide, which are known to be harmful to human health.

Women who collect and segregate waste in landfills suffer from illness more frequently due to the intense heat from landfills. Recent restrictions on bringing waste down from landfills have forced them to work at landfills, exacerbating their health issues and vulnerability. 

In addition to the challenges of being unable to earn even a minimum wage, exhaustive labour, continuous harassment, exposure to hazardous waste, the regular threat of evictions and insufficient access to whatever little social security and health schemes may exist, make their lives miserable. The exposure to hazardous waste and its impact on waste pickers’ health is alarming.

Jameela spoke about the financial burden that she has to bear. Due to the absence of any nearby government hospital or affordable and quality medical care, she has to visit a doctor who runs a private clinic who charges Rs 500 for a single visit — an exorbitant fee for a waste picker like herself.

Jameela recollected the pandemic years when she was unable to pursue her livelihood due to the imposed lockdowns, leading to a loss of her source of income, proving detrimental to her access to healthcare. This illustrates how the lack of social protection measures keeps economically disadvantaged workers at bay from accessing necessary services. Moreover, a lack of regulation and unequal access to health care can harm the overall quality of health care.

Many have often reported that they are already suffering from skin, eyes and respiration diseases or are at high risk of developing these issues. There is also a constant threat of being injured by fire accidents, explosions, heavy metals, glass and sharp objects. The cramped houses with temporary shelter and structure, extremely poor conditions and lack of basic services like clean water, toilets, sanitation, ventilation, and personal protection equipment are associated with extreme social and health vulnerabilities. 

Moreover, these workers have no feasible access to social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and, most importantly dhalaos (waste sorting centres) which are now being converted into space for compactor machines and material recovery facility. 

Many informal workers face occupational health risks when poor living conditions exacerbate these health hazards. The children in the waste-picking families are not distant from these diseases. For example, Jameela’s daughter, who is five years old, has very low vision like her mother.

 As the hazards associated with landfill sites increase, it is essential to pay close attention to the health concerns of waste pickers and take appropriate measures to address them. Access to universal health care schemes and facilities for the informal waste pickers of Delhi becomes vital when discussing livelihood protection and health security.

This requires the authorities to recognise them as ‘workers’ under the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 and align our policies with these workers’ health assessments and needs. This could be a pertinent step to protect the rights and dignity of waste pickers, who have invested their whole lives into managing the world’s one of the biggest problems — Waste!

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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