Mountains of trash: India’s waste problem – Part II

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Trash. It’s a huge problem all over the world – especially in growing cities. In her blog, DW reporter Sella Oneko explores how India, population 1.25 billion, deals with its garbage. Now, the human side in Mumbai.

Mumbai, India. Pick it, sell it and earn 300 rupees (just over 4 euros) a day. That’s what Anita does with waste. Without the trash, she says, there’d be no work for her and the other women we encounter on the roadside, where they sort the waste they’ve collected: paper, plastics, electronics. Once it’s sorted, they sell it to middlemen, who in turn sell it to recyclers.

The waste pickers of India belong to the Dalits – the so-called untouchables, or lowest caste in the Indian system. They’re seen as “impure,” and traditionally have not even been allowed to enter temples. They generally live on the outskirts of societyOfficially, of course, the caste system no longer exists – but especially for the lower castes in India, that’s just wishful thinking.

About 70 to 80 percent of the waste-pickers are women, says Jyoti Mhapsekar of Stree Mukti Sanghatana, a nongovernmental organization that works with the waste-pickers. Many, she says, have recently immigrated to the city. Often they’re single parents, illiterate and have learned few other skills to fall back on.

While one could argue that sorting waste provides jobs for the women, the system is largely informal, and the women have little in terms of support.

Mumbai has four landfills, where all non-segregated waste goes. Deonar landfill is the oldest of them – it’s turning 90 next year, although it should have been shut down years ago. From time to time, it catches fire. The toxic fumes from this has even led to closure of area schools. That’s just one way in which locals suffer from the environmental consequences of poor waste management. 

For the waste-pickers, however, the landfills are out-of-bounds – strange isn’t it? The city doesn’t allow them onto the dumping grounds. Instead, a private contractor is supposed to handle the waste in the landfill.

Anita and the other women at the roadside therefore have to walk long distances collect the waste in various areas, and then find a place to sort it. That’s their biggest problem, the women explain. Even here on the roadside, the police or ordinary people chase them away. Nobody wants waste sorted in front of their door.

Author Sella Oneko