Call for more retraining and other help as modern waste disposal and recycling methods sideline workers
A rag picker collects reusable trash to sell in order to make a living. Some 3,000 such people have reportedly lost their livelihoods since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a cleanliness drive. (Photo by Saji Thomas/ucanews.com)
For more than four decades rag picker Duba Bai sifted through trash for recyclable items around the city of Indore in central India.
But, aged 56, she increasingly finds the source of her livelihood hard to come by. "Now I am mostly unemployed," the grandmother told ucanews.com when blaming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for her fate.
Modi's Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission launched in 2014 has changed the way people dispose of their waste. Residents are told that, rather than using public areas as dumping grounds, they should separate degradable and non-degradable domestic waste to be picked up in government vehicles.
Bai continues to collect waste strewn across the housing complexes, roads, bus stands and other public places of Indore, which is the main commercial city of Madhya Pradesh state. But she finds there is less of it.
Until a year ago, when the national campaign took root in Indore, Bai earned about 500 rupees (US$8) a day by selling reusable materials.
"Today it has become very difficult to make one fourth of it," she laments. "Now people don't give us waste. They even chase us away from housing compounds. Some days I go hungry."
Bai added that her five children are also unemployed as she could not educate them on her meager income. "They have the same fate, so how will they take care of me?" she asked.
Bai is among some 150,000 rag pickers across India facing joblessness, say social activists trying to help them find alternative employment
"Now it is time for rag pickers to think beyond rag picking to find a living," says Father Roy Thomas, director of a Catholic non-governmental agency, the Janvikas Society, that has long worked for their welfare.
The Divine Word priest, who is based in Indore, said government efforts have helped the city become cleaner but left some 3,600 people such as Bai jobless.
The priest noted that government agencies had employed about 600 of them. "Rag pickers are illiterate and not skilled to do any other job," he said, adding that they should be reskilled.
The Janvikas Society is planning to train some of them in tailoring, paper bag making and embroidery as well as other pursuits, he said at the end of a July 23-24 workshop involving the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers (AIW) in Indore.
Some 100 social activists and leaders representing 35 non-government organizations working among rag pickers in eight Indian states attended the workshop.
In most Indian cities, civic bodies are taking responsibility for waste collection and this makes traditional rag picking obsolete, said Nalini Shekhar, a social worker from southern Bengaluru city.
The workshop participants also sought ways to include rag pickers in various government social protection schemes to ensure their food security. Most had found themselves ineligible as they lacked documents to prove their identity and to show a residential address.
Volunteers said that people like Bai, who had worked all their lives to keep cities clean when they had no proper waste disposal systems, should not be forgotten. But most continue to live in subhuman, unhygienic conditions.
Campaigners maintain that, at the very least, the elderly among them should get government benefits such as food subsidies, educational opportunities for dependents and pensions.
And younger people who have lost their livelihoods could be employed to help implement more modern methods of waste disposal and recycling.
"Integration of informal waste pickers in formal waste management systems of cities is of crucial importance today," the workshop stressed in a statement.
Participants also unanimously agreed to approach the federal ministry of urban development and the Clean India Mission on this issue.
Those now suffering want urgent assistance to overcome extreme poverty. "Let it happen soon, in my lifetime, before I die of hunger," one rag picker told ucanews.com.
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