India has often demonstrated that the lives of its poor citizens are cheap. We see it again in the disdain of the privileged class towards migrant labourers walking hundreds of kilometres back home on foot or in their frustration towards those doing relief work to help marginalised sections such as migrant workers, sanitation workers, trans persons, sex workers and informal workers who have suddenly been rendered jobless.
Those with a fixed salary and a work from home facility show their caste and class privilege when their only response to people being forced to gather in groups is “why don’t they quietly stay at home!” This lack of empathy is reflected in their justification of the police lathi charging poor labourers. Videos have emerged of members of the elite sections of society picking up and dropping off their domestic help by car. This reflects how we exploit and ignore the working class belonging to marginalised castes, tribes and genders. And we refuse to change our ways even during a pandemic.
As many of us are asking the government questions, doing relief work and making donations to organisations helping the poor, let’s not forget one very important thing: waste.
Even in these times, we dump all our waste in a plastic bag and keep it outside for a nameless and faceless person to pick it up daily. Those who don’t have housekeeping facilities, empty their dustbins in a roadside dump. Municipal sanitation workers pick up this waste – often without personal protective equipment – from schools, colleges, residential areas and roadside dumps. They transport this waste to transit stations, dry waste collection centres or landfills. Waste pickers then try to weed out recyclables from dumping grounds or roadside dumps, and sell them to scrap dealers to make a living.
The rest of the mixed waste rots in the landfill and some percentage of the salvaged dry waste is sent out by scrap dealers to recycling units.
Waste management system
As the country went into lockdown overnight, the entire waste management system, which in many places is in nascent stages, collapsed. Waste pickers cannot go out to collect waste. Scrap shops, recycling units are shut. Thousands of waste pickers in metropolitan cities like Mumbai have been rendered penniless because they do not have any disposable income or savings. Dry waste collection centres, which were constructed after hard negotiations and awareness campaigns in residential areas, have been shut down to prevent risk of infection. Composting units and biogas plants which were set up in several residential areas have been shut down. As a result, all efforts towards decentralisation of waste have come undone.
Waste management is now more centralised than ever. Municipal workers continue to pick up waste from localities and transport it to the dumping ground. Many who don’t wish to go to the roadside community dustbin are now throwing waste outside their windows into gutters or recklessly throwing it on the roads. This can have grave consequences for us.
Waste lying on the roads can attract rodents, mosquitoes and spreads infection. Waste ending up at the landfill in mixed form can further infect the slum-dwellers surrounding it. There is a possibility that it might catch fire as has already happened in the summers. But most importantly, as the waste is in mixed form, the municipal workers who handle it are at risk of infection.
Why does an average household not segregate waste? Because we all are firm believers of the “out of sight, out of mind” ideology. We add our rotting leftovers, vegetable peels, milk pouches, sanitary napkins, used tissues and surgical masks in the same black plastic bag without a single care about where it will end up and who will come into contact with.
This also stems from our apathy towards those who are forced to work in this sector. Most sanitation workers who are forced to make a living by touching toxic waste, belong to marginalised communities, almost all Dalits. Would we be okay with working in rotting waste which also has dangerous razors, soiled diapers and infected cotton pieces? How can we then be okay with someone else touching our waste? Are sanitation workers not human beings? Are they not at risk of being infected by the coronavirus?
‘Paid leaves not enough’
In an ideal world, no one should be working like this and no one should have to pick waste, touch toxic waste or enter sewers. But unfortunately we cannot pretend that these “jobs” don’t exist. Giving sanitation workers paid leaves is not enough. The first step is segregation, so that someone else does not have to segregate our waste. Many complain that even if they segregate, their housekeeping staff mixes it. We can request the building committee members to provide dustbins for separate wastes but before that, we need to start composting wet waste.
Segregate your waste accordingly in a three bin or two bin and one bag system for dry, wet and hazardous waste. Composting wet waste eliminates 65% of the waste in your dustbin and that’s a lot of waste saved from entering a landfill and reduces the burden on sanitation workers. For dry waste, a simple – clean, wash and dry –method is enough. One can easily store milk pouches, food packets, juice bottles if it is clean, dried and stored in a bin for an entire month. Lastly, for hazardous waste, which is a very tiny amount, ensure it is wrapped securely in a newspaper. Hazardous waste must be treated scientifically, but more often than not ends up at the landfill. So ensure you try to replace some commonly disposed hazardous items such as tissues, pads, masks, with reusables which can be disinfected and used repeatedly.
Also read: Let Poor People Die. Only You Should Survive
Let us remember that those who are working on the front lines of this crisis are human beings. They have no option of taking leaves because their lives depend on it. Let us develop a politics of empathy towards those who are coming into contact with our waste and make sure it doesn’t put their lives at risk. And lastly, let us work towards ending not only this pandemic by taking all precautions needed but also keep demanding better healthcare and social security for the working class.
T. Lalita works for Stree Mukti Sanghatana – a non-government organisation that works for empowerment of women. Under their Parisar Vikas program, they work specifically with women waste pickers
Featured image credit: Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash