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Ragpickers of Seemapuri | From Trash to Treasure – The Unseen Struggles and Sacrifices

Ragpickers of Seemapuri | Unearthing Lives Amidst Delhi's Waste Mountains: The Struggle, Resilience, and Hopes of the Unsung Heroes.

By The Probe team
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Ragpickers of Seemapuri | Delhi's Seemapuri is a poignant juxtaposition: the region's natural beauty overshadowed by vast mounds of waste. But look closer, and another narrative emerges — a bustling community of ragpickers, tirelessly working each day to sift through the capital's waste. Men, women, and children scour the bylanes of Delhi, collecting, sorting, and selling discarded materials. For these individuals, their demanding and hazardous profession isn't a choice, but a grim reality.

The Stolen Childhoods of the Ragpickers of Seemapuri: Ragpicking Over Reading

Komal, a 12 year old ragpicker from Seemapuri

Komal, a 12 year old ragpicker from Seemapuri | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Take Komal, a petite 12-year-old whose small hands belie the enormity of her responsibility. When asked about school, the response is a disheartening 'no'. The family, consisting of her parents and five siblings, all share the same fate — a life amidst the refuse.

"I am Komal, and I don't go to school," she says with an innocence that feels out of place in the grimy surroundings of Seemapuri. The reason? The daily grind of ragpicking.

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 Another face in the crowd is Sheikh Muslim, a 15-year-old boy. Like Komal, Sheikh has never experienced the joys and challenges of schooling. His youthful days are instead spent alongside mounds of trash.

"I am fifteen, and I don't go to school," says Sheikh, his voice echoing the collective sigh of the young ragpickers of Seemapuri. His reason for not attending school is, unsurprisingly, the relentless demands of rag-picking. "It's just my father and I," he adds, offering a glimpse into the weight of responsibility on his young shoulders. Children ragpicking in Seemapuri is a regular sight

Children ragpicking in Seemapuri is a regular sight | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Ragpickers of Seemapuri | The Underbelly of India's Waste Management

Naeema Bibi paints a stark picture of her life — one that forces her and her family to cook by the roadside, using water fetched from afar. "Look at our condition. We are facing a lot of difficulties," she laments. A generational plight, Naeema has been rag-picking since childhood and carries the legacy of her parents, also ragpickers. Yet, with all the toil, she earns a mere 200 rupees a day, an amount insufficient to escape the cycle of poverty.

Sameena, another face among Seemapuri's ragpickers, highlights a troubling conundrum. While rag-picking might be viewed as dealing with 'trash' by others, for her, it's a lifeline. "For us, it is our livelihood," she emphasises. Despite the daily challenges, Sameena manages her expenses with the meagre 150 to 200 rupees she earns. Her reasons for not seeking alternative employment? The monthly wages of housemaid jobs don't cater to her daily needs.The ragpickers of Seemapuri fight for basic amenities

The ragpickers of Seemapuri fight for basic amenities | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Ragpickers of Seemapuri | The Ageless Burden of Sifting Through Trash

The burden of trash isn't solely borne by Seemapuri's youth. Older people, like 60-year-old Nandini Devi, too, are ensnared in this relentless cycle. Her wrinkles, more than mere markers of age, are testament to her years amidst waste. When asked about her work, Nandini's answer is simple yet poignant: "I am unable to do anything else." Her entire family, including her sole son, is involved in rag-picking.

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In the bustling slums of Seemapuri, the ragpickers' lives are painted with strokes of adversity and resilience. Like Nandini, Zareena, another older person, sifts through waste with her bare hands, risking their well-being due to the absence of basic protective gear such as face masks, gloves, or boots. While the hazardous nature of their profession is evident, their ordeal is exacerbated by the apathy of bureaucratic processes. When Zareena tried to acquire a ration card, her efforts were thwarted because she says she was denied ration card on grounds that she did not own a house. 

60 year old Nandini Devi, one of Seemapuri’s ragpickers

60 year old Nandini Devi, one of Seemapuri’s ragpickers | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Shruti Sinha from CHINTAN underscores the vital role these "forgotten environmentalists" play in maintaining urban ecological balance in India. Despite their contributions, ragpickers are often stigmatised, marginalised, and denied access to essential resources and rights. Their working conditions, coupled with societal prejudice, make their lives all the more challenging.

Dangers Lurk in Every Heap of Waste

Noor Islam's journey as a ragpicker stretches over four decades, and his story mirrors the struggles many ragpickers of Seemapuri endure. In 2002, a devastating fire razed his house. Without any governmental assistance, Noor reconstructed his home, using his earnings from selling recyclables. 

Navigating a treacherous terrain of sharp objects, harmful chemicals, and unsanitary conditions, the life of a ragpicker is fraught with peril. Kohinoor Bibi, another face among the countless ragpickers, narrates her experiences of grave illness with death ominously staring at her. She speaks about the immense vulnerability that comes with the job and recounts moments of severe illness, times when death loomed ominously close.

Kohinoor, along with her family, has been in the rag-picking business for over three decades. Despite the hardships, the scarcity of employment opportunities forces many to adopt this profession, even when they seek to break away. 

"When we discuss ragpicking, especially in our context, it's not just about recycling," says Priti Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator at Toxics Link. The waste they handle is often mixed with hazardous materials. Priti highlights the extreme dangers, including exposure to sanitary waste, potential needle stick injuries leading to diseases, and more. Despite these perils, the ragpickers operate without safety measures, making them vulnerable to the toxic elements they handle.

Trash is treasure for these Seemapuri ragpickers

Trash is treasure for these Seemapuri ragpickers | Photo courtesy: The Probe

Ragpickers of Seemapuri | A Community Disappointed by Political Promises

Political disillusionment is palpable within the ragpicker community of Seemapuri. Naeema Bibi states, "Politicians come with promises during elections, but once they secure our votes, their assurances vanish."

Rajkumar Das echoes Naeema's sentiments, highlighting the stark contrast between the pre-election and post-election behaviours of local politicians. He emphasises that despite the dire conditions of their locality – clogged drains, heaps of garbage, and unsanitary conditions – the politicians show a clear dereliction of duty post-election.

This ground reality paints a vivid picture: While these ragpickers contribute significantly to waste management, their demands for basic necessities and safe working conditions remain largely unaddressed.

Seemapuri's Waste Crisis: A Battle Between Health and Livelihood

The streets of Seemapuri paint a distressing picture. Mounds of trash obstruct thoroughfares, making them treacherous mazes. Alarmingly, ambulances, which could be life-saving in emergencies, often find themselves unable to navigate through these lanes, leading to avoidable tragedies.

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"The road is so inundated with trash that it often hinders the movement of vehicles. Our children find their paths to school blocked by heaps of waste, which sometimes isn't collected for up to two weeks," says Rajkumar Das. He adds that, in dire situations, the roads can become so impassable that even ambulances can't make their way through.

When questioned about the responsibility of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Das highlights their negligence, saying, "When we inquire about the delay in garbage collection, the MCD staff often deflects, blaming metro waste or malfunctioning equipment." He also points to the presence of unauthorised dump yards, which, although illegal, are still operational.

From Trash to Cash: The Ragpicker's Journey

When delving into the workings of the ragpickers, Rajkumar provides clarity. They pick waste from the official garbage dump yards or directly from vehicles that carry metro waste. Following this, they segregate the waste. Their main sources of income are from selling recyclables, like plastics, bottles, and cardboard, to local shopkeepers. The rates they receive for these materials can range from 5 to 15 rupees per kilogram.

A Call for Policy Integration and Ragpicker Recognition

Amidst the hardships faced by Seemapuri's ragpickers, there are rising calls for transformative measures. Advocates stress the necessity for government recognition of the pivotal role ragpickers play in the domain of waste management.

Priti Mahesh of Toxics Link, emphasises the urgency of their inclusion in a structured system. "Considering their longstanding contribution to waste management, merely stripping them of their livelihood isn't the solution," she says. Mahesh believes in crafting policies that assure ragpickers not just a livelihood, but one that is safe and sustainable. She underscores the dire need for policies that provide them both social and economic security, commensurate with the invaluable services they offer to society.

Shortcomings in Waste Management: A Cry for More Than Rules

While existing regulations attempt to govern waste management in India, many argue they are insufficient, especially considering the magnitude of the challenges faced by ragpickers, who are often hailed as the backbone of the country's waste management framework.

Shashi Bhushan Pandit, Secretary of the All India Kabaddi Mazdoor Mahasangh, highlights the acute issues in Seemapuri and beyond. "In Seemapuri alone, a substantial population relies on ragpicking. Delhi houses many such slums. Waste management has evolved into a major urban concern." Pandit adds, "The recent MCD elections pivoted around this waste management issue, resulting in a governmental shift." Despite the waste management rules of 2016 recognizing the vital role of waste management workers, he believes the regulations are lacking.

Pandit expresses his frustrations, saying, "The 2016 rules acknowledge these individuals as essential to our system. But it's merely a rule. If it were an act, it would have universal applicability. We've followed these rules for seven years, but they've failed to integrate even one waste worker. This is why they're inadequate. We need a comprehensive Act on waste management."

Seemapuri stands as a testament to the spirit of resilience. Every day, ragpickers confront a plethora of challenges, navigating the treacherous landscape of waste management with determination. Despite their invaluable contribution, their calls for a cleaner, safer environment largely go unanswered. Their narratives are tales of perseverance in the midst of adversity. Yet, tragically, in the larger system, their significance remains diminished, their voices often drowned out by bureaucratic apathy.

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