Thursday, May 22, 2014

Life as a waste picker

Along our journey today through the garbage cycle in Bangalore, we discovered a family living and working in a waste dump site outside Bangalore city limits. Members of the family told us how they became waste pickers and spoke candidly about their struggles and making a living off others' waste.
One of the first things you recognize when visiting Bangalore is the abundance of trash lining the roads and open spaces of the city. What was once one of India's cleanest cities is now one of its dirtiest as a consequence of both the rapid growth and lack of infrastructure development since large IT companies first started to arrive in Bangalore in the 1980s.

The city of more than 8.5 million people now generates roughly 5,000 metric tons of waste per day. The solid waste management system in Bangalore is undergoing many growing pains, struggling to prevent trash generators from dumping their waste on public land.

Today we focused on the trash problem facing Bangalore by following the flow of trash from its morning collection to its end in a city landfill or a recycling facility.

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As one can only imagine, spending a day chasing trash maxed out our senses. From the suffocating smells and dense, hot air of landfills and plastic processing facilities, to becoming the focal point of long stares and stunned curiosity of an entire low-class neighborhood, there was no shortage of exciting and challenging new experiences today.

One thing that stuck with me was a family we met while visiting a landfill just outside Bangalore city limits.

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We discovered the family as they were sorting through trash in the pungent, gray wasteland of the landfill. The family consisted of a father, mother, their two sons (ages 18 and 20), and six close relatives.

As trash picking from landfills is illegal in India, the family has to bribe the municipal guards 6,000 rupees per month in order to live and work in the landfill. Two other such groups of 10 waste pickers also live and work in the landfill. These groups make their living collecting the high value waste of paper, plastics, and scrap metals and selling it to scrap dealers.

By selling this waste, the family was able to make 250-400 rupees per day.

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Three years ago, this family moved to Bangalore for the promise of work. For the great majority of that time, the family has lived and worked in this same landfill. While the family admits they would rather take better work, the money they make per day is enough to support their 14-year-old daughter and grandmother.

For 8000 rupees per month, the family is able to lodge their grandmother and daughter in a hostel in Delhi while also providing their daughter with an education.

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Recently, however, the family's financials have taken a hit. In March, one of the sons broke his leg, requiring surgery. At a public hospital, the son was able to have the operation, although he still has a limp trudging through the rubble with a walker.

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With regards to the family's living conditions, they managed to construct their home from scrap from the landfill and large blue tarps that function as roof and siding. When asked how they deal with the torrential downpours that occur this time of year, they said their home is sturdy enough to protect them.

The biggest issue when it rains is that they can't work. The amount of new trash being added to the landfill is also significantly reduced when it rains.

The smell of the landfill no longer bothers the family as they have become accustomed to it. Even when it rains and large pools of standing water come up across the landfill, they notice no difference in the smell.

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On the other side of the corrugated metal fences of the landfill was a rose garden and small farm. We talked with the people tending to the garden, and they expressed displeasure with the landfill. They said they owned the land next to the landfill back when the land was just an open, active quarry, but now the soil is contaminated from the landfill runoff.

They also have not gotten used to the smell, and they have difficulty selling their flowers in the market as they have supposedly become smaller and less fragrant by growing in soured soils.

Where the trash picking business earns one family a steady, sustainable income, the flower growers of India's Garden City are struggling to get by. It is a sad and ironic example of how Bangalore's trash problem has come to affect everyone in this area, not only those in the crowded city center.

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