COVID-19: What it is to ‘work from home’ for women waste-pickers

Most housing units in Bhalaswa village have not been upgraded to support informal waste work. This impacts women’s productivity, security and earnings

By Shalaka Chauhan
Published: Wednesday 09 June 2021

Bhalaswa village, close to the Bhalaswa landfill in national capital Delhi, is home to 150 waste-picker families. Both men and women are engaged in the work, but most burden, especially of the second round of segregation at the source, falls on women.

All the dry waste in the village comes to women, who sort and segregate it into 87 categories inside their houses and sell it. This takes up 18 hours of labour every day, and yet, women do not regard themselves as workers.

Home as a productive asset

A house as a workspace has a direct impact on women’s productivity, security and earnings. Dhalaos (waste centres) have been turned into private compactor centres in the village, which offer these women place to work. From storage at arrival to selling the recyclable waste, the chain requires adequate space to perform all activities.

It has been observed, however, that these housing units and services have not been upgraded to support informal waste work. Despite a high rent, these poor quality houses are built in cramped colonies and in close proximity to landfills without basic services like potable water, toilets, sanitation, electricity, safety and ventilation.

The process needs space and time for cleaning, washing and dismantling of the waste. Two-thirds of such houses in Delhi is used as working space where cleaning, segregation, and storage take places. The rest has a small kitchen and a temporary berth where an average family of five stays.

These houses get flooded during rains; their waste and belongings get wiped out. The houses reek of foul smell and waste lying everywhere poses several risk factors, hazards and vulnerabilities. The implication and challenges of occupational health and safety hazards involve acute illness and deadly accidents.

A majority of women in the village have weak eyes. Many suffer from fungal infections and allergies. A few suffer from tuberculosis and other chronic respiratory diseases.

There is also a high risk of fire accidents or explosions. Almost 16 cases of such fire accidents were reported in Delhi in the last one year.

Impact of COVID-19

Since March 2020, when India went into lockdown induced by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the lives and livelihoods of those in the informal waste went for a toss. Some waste pickers switched to other occupations; others continue to struggle with reduced income and savings.

But the amount of waste and labour remained intact. Even a pandemic could not stop constant eviction and relocation drives.

Washing hands, maintaining hygiene and physical distancing remain a luxury for many waste pickers. That they are devoid of legal visibility, labour rights and social protection makes matters even worse.

Gaps in laws and policies

Women’s labour-intensive work continues to be invisible. Although the Solid Waste Management Rules (SWM), 2016, recognise informal waste pickers as a vital and integral part of solid waste management, its ineffective implementation can be seen in the form of a lack of formal recognition and protection within the system.

SWM rules and Swacch Bharat mission together form a broken mechanism where waste pickers’ data, their contribution and need for important spaces like infrastructure is invisibilised. The need for housing land, infrastructure and services in the government’s flagship schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation and Smart Cities Mission are not paid any heed to.

What can be done

It is imperative that policy makers and urban planners understand the need of women waste pickers and their need for household space. There is a need to emphasise that our cities are not planned to accommodate the housing, livelihood and gendered needs of workers.

These settlements must be recognised and promoted as productive spaces through appropriate land-use planning and regulation and in-situ upgradation. The approach to promote their working rights in the city is that of securing and promoting their housing sites. This also includes universalisation of basic and affordable services like water, sanitation, electricity and transportation.

Housing and livelihood are interlinked for many women workers; decent housing, therefore, needs to be treated as priority to secure women participation in the waste sector.

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