Yet, life's in tatters

Ragpickers are a city's vital service-providers: they clean it up

Published: Tuesday 15 March 2005

Yet, life's in tatters

-- (Credit: Amit shanker / CSe)Ragpickers are solely responsible for manually separating non-biodegradable wastes from garbage bins in cities. "They play a vital role in the economy of solid waste recycling process. They feed the need of intermediary buyers, who, in turn, meet the demand of factories using recyclable solid waste as raw materials," points out Nitai Kundu of the Institute of Wetland Management and Ecological Design, Kolkata. But for a group with such a vital function in society, their lives are literally in tatters.

Most ragpickers are migrants from Bangladesh and states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Ragpicking is often their only source of livelihood. Although no data on their population or other such details is available, an estimate by Butterflies, a non-governmental organisation (ngo), says one lakh street children out of a total of three-four lakhs engage in this work.

Utter neglect

A study on Delhi's ragpickers by Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (cnci), Kolkata, says they spend almost eight-twelve hours per day, six-seven days a week, in landfills that have 559-2082 microgramme per metre 3 total suspended particulate matter (tsp) in the air -- several-fold higher than the city's average. This can cause respiratory infections such as lung impairment and hampered lung function. Six-year-old Sonu says he spends long hours collecting recyclable materials and then brings them home for segregation.

Delhi's garbage bins and landfills receive a fair amount of biomedical waste. According to Md Nazeer, a ragpicker, even hospital wastes find their way to these dumps. He has to sort out amputated body parts, blood-soaked cottons and broken injections with his bare hands. The injections, which can transmit viruses like the hiv, often pierce his skin.

According to cnci, because ragpickers do not use protective masks or gloves, they are always exposed to pathogens such as tapeworm and liverflukes eggs, and sharp materials such as broken glass or used needles. Nizam, a nine-year-old boy who now works with Butterflies, recollects that he would very often be bitten by dogs while collecting rubbish but wouldn't get proper medication. "Doctors don't want to treat these dirty, shabby, diseased ragpickers and quite often assume that they, especially the kids, will steal their instruments," a Butterflies official says. Nizam also recalls burning wires to obtain its metal, as that can fetch him around Rs 2.5 per gramme. According to a study conducted by ngo Chintan among 250 ragpickers, 61 per cent men and 62 per cent children admitted doing the same. The fact that the activity exposed them to noxious fumes and toxins, like hydrochloric acid (hcl) fumes and dioxins, was irrelevant for them. hcl severely damages the respiratory system while carcinogenic dioxins disrupt the endocrine system.

Another danger Narcotics also pose a serious danger to ragpickers' lives. Drugs like heroine are easily available to them and often kill them, says Butterflies health offical Pradeep Kumar Bijalani. Butterflies, Chintan and other ngos conduct health care programmes among ragpickers and provide them shelters. Butterflies has doctors working at most points in Delhi where these people work: Inter State Bus Terminus, Kashmeri Gate, Karol Bagh, New Delhi Railway Station, Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Fatehpuri, Petti Market, Connaught Place, Nizamuddin Station, Okhla Mandi, Nizamuddin Dargha.

But none of these efforts can fill the void created by the apathy of the government towards ragpickers.

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