polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Waste Pickers and Rights to the City in Delhi

by Melissa García Lamarca

While many have heard the old saying that ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, the reality in many cities around the world is that one person’s trash is another person’s livelihood. In Delhi, formal statistics state that around 350,000 people survive off of waste picking, although informal estimates run up to one million.

This profession is not decided upon by choice. Waste pickers tend to be migrants or landless people, from minority and/or low caste groups, and are in essence vulnerable and invisible members of the city. They have no access to entitlements or services, with no address, ID or political godfather to protect them. Waste pickers earn between 30 and 100 Rs per day (around $0.75 to $2.50) sorting 15% of Delhi’s waste away from landfills into various recycling streams. Those who work at actual landfill sites, largely women and children, are at the very bottom of the waste hierarchy, as arriving waste has already been sorted and only low value items remain.

Ghazipur landfill, East Delhi
In recent years, however, waste has become a new, contentious business in the move towards a ‘Clean Delhi, Green Delhi’, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s motto for the capital. Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) – neoliberal urban policy launched in 2005 focusing on large-scale infrastructure development – 80% of Delhi’s waste system has been privatised. At present five corporations are currently subcontracted by the government through public private partnerships and now monopolise the waste stream, displacing waste pickers often forcefully through threats and outright violence. The waste management companies have no social concerns and aim solely to maximise profit, a goal reflected in how they have changed municipal bylaws to give them exclusive rights to door-to-door waste collection, an area previously the domain of waste pickers. They seek to remove these people who could capture some of their profit, people who in effect served as an informal and invisible subsidy to the municipally run waste system, the bottom tier of the waste collection pyramid.

Waste picker settlement in Delhi
Actively fighting to counteract this displacement is an organisation called the National Association of Waste Workers, a group engaged in struggle towards rights to the city for this incredibly marginalised group in Delhi’s National Capital Region. Through organising waste pickers, their goal is to participate in policy dialogue and make their claims heard for formal recognition of their work, for legal ID and for halting harassment by the police and authorities. The Association is also a member of a coalition of slum-dwellers’ organisations, trade unions and NGOs called Sajha Manch (Joint Forum) active on this same issue and towards democratising larger urban development processes in Delhi. In solidarity, here’s to this critically important work for dignity and rights to the city effectively and successfully achieving its goals.

Special thanks to Ravi Agarwal from Toxic Link and Shashi Pandit, founder of the National Association of Waste Workers, and his comrades for sharing their knowledge and insights into the process and struggles towards rights for waste workers in Delhi.

Credits: Images from Melissa García Lamarca.