They walk along quietly, hunched over, picking up the useful pieces of trash, from amongst piles of it lying around. The sack they carry gets heavier, but they go about their job anyway.
That ragpickers live a hard life, is an understatement. They sustain themselves by collecting, sorting, and segregating waste. They work without any job security, salary or dignity, and are frequently exposed to diseases and tuberculosis apart from poverty, humiliation, and abuse on the streets.
However, a situation in Tamil Nadu has made the authorities realise the immense value ragpickers have if they can be brought together in an organised manner.
Chennai generates an alarming 3,500 tonnes of garbage daily, of which 1,800 tonnes reaches the Kodungaiyur dump yard, and about 1,400 tonnes is dumped at Perungudi, right in the middle of the Pallikaranai marshland.
The indiscriminate dumping and burning of garbage, around the marshland attracted the attention of the Madras High Court, and it intervened, post which experts in solid waste management and environmentalists pitched in, saying that streamlining and organising ragpickers, is the best way to reduce the garbage load.
Chennai has a centralised system of garbage collection and disposal. If ragpickers are deployed at the local level, garbage collected from homes and street corners could be segregated and given for recycling.
In Pune, Lakshmi Narayan, the general secretary of the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (Scrapcollector’s Union), has organised ragpickers into a cohesive unit, deploying them to collect, segregate, and recycle waste from all over the city, since 1993.
According to experts quoted in The Hindu, a similar model could be implemented in Chennai.
According to MB Nirmal, the Founder of Exnora International, an NGO which works on focuses on preserving nature and preventing environmental degradation, ragpickers should be organised into a union and deployed to collect and segregate garbage, area-wise.
He believes that if they are encouraged, and given financial support, they can become micro-entrepreneurs and graduate to higher levels of waste-management, like scrap dealing and trading.
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Many activists have expressed concern over the condition of ragpickers. Actor Charu Hussain, a member of Exnora, suggested that ragpickers should be provided with gum boots, rubber gloves, and appropriate work-gear. According to environmentalist Jaysree Vencatesan, this recognition should have come earlier. She believes that their natural understanding of waste management should be put to the best use, as soon as possible.