In India, recycling by ragpickers


Trash: Poverty drives a highly organized but illegal system of reusing trash in New Delhi's slums.


NEW DELHI, India -- Crouched on his haunches beneath a blue plastic tarp, Mohamad Harun swiftly sifts through the heaps around him. A mean pre-monsoon sun pours down, but Harun works quickly, without break.

From the sacks piled behind him, he pulls newspapers and plastic bags, jars and cans, string and uneaten bread. With barely a glance, he twitches his wrist and the mishmash of junk behind him gets sorted in piles before him.

Thousands of so-called ragpickers like Harun work the dumps and slums of Delhi. Harun can differentiate qualities and thicknesses of plastic bags with a slight touch. He knows which string recycling plants will take. He knows that dairies will buy uneaten rotis, the Indian flatbread, and feed them to their cows.

"It's good work," says Harun, 26.

It pays $2 to $5 a day.

Harun is one part of Delhi's private, highly organized -- but illegal -- recycling chain.

That chain begins with the "kabari-wallah," or recycling man, who rides his bicycle up and down neighborhood streets with burlap sacks on his bike rack. Housewives sell him old newspapers and empty cans for a few rupees. Others battle the cows and sift through the roadside garbage bins, looking with trained eye for unclaimed treasure.

When the kabari-wallah's sacks are full, he rides to Yamuna Pushta, a makeshift neighborhood of 18,000 families stuffed between the black sludge of the Yamuna River and the high sandstone walls of the Red Fort.

In Yamuna Pushta and areas like it, Harun and others sort through the sacks. What can be recycled, they sell by the pound to the neighborhood wholesaler. Paper pays more than plastic. Rubber tires earn the most. The wholesaler puts it on another bicycle and hauls it out to the road to where the recycling plant's truck picks it up.

City residents produce 13 million pounds of garbage a day, and one-sixth of it gets recycled this way. But it's illegal, and the Delhi government is trying to discourage the practice. It says the recycled products available in India are unhealthy.

"They're full of lead and mercury and other cancer-causing agents," says A. K. Walia, Delhi's health and urban development minister.

The recycling system has other dangers.

Spewing dark smoke into the sky, a fire killed more than 50 people and destroyed 7,700 homes in Yamuna Pushta earlier this year. Three weeks later, a second fire destroyed 2,000 more homes -- many of them rebuilt after the first fire.

With the houses jammed one against the next along narrow alleys, the flames spread with ease. The slum smoldered for hours as firefighters couldn't get down the alleys to drench it.

And with plastic bags and rubber tires piled high throughout the packed colony, the fires had a lethal fuel. Twenty people took refuge in a mosque, praying that God would save them. Instead, the toxic smoke killed them, residents say.

"The people couldn't escape. No one could get in. No one could get out," says Asad Masih, a relief worker and head of the Muneer Social Welfare Society.

"The cause of the problems of these communities and these fires lies outside," says Ravi Aggarwal, head of the Delhi-based advocacy group Srishti. "It lies with inability of the government to come up with any real recycling program." And, he says, the fires are only the most visible apparition of the dangers of the current situation: These illegal communities have no sewers, no safe drinking water, no health clinics.

"Everything here is a problem," agrees Kali Muddin, a 32-year-old Yamuna Pushta resident.

If recycling became legal and organized, Aggarwal argues, the makeshift communities and dangerous working conditions would disappear.

Not everyone is so sure.

Thousands welcome the opportunity to be ragpickers, which shows that poverty, not unorganized recycling, is the heart of the problem.

In Delhi, 3 million people live in communities like Yamuna Pushta. Every year, 600,000 people migrate to the city. For them, $5 a day is a good wage. No matter what changes the government makes, the poverty and insecurity will continue.

"Life is so hard in rural India that people from neighboring states keep pouring into Delhi," Walia says. "Each year, the situation in [Delhi slums] gets more and more grave."

Walia says his government has plans to make slums like Yamuna Pushta more safe. They are trying to turn the haphazard squatter communities into well-constructed neighborhoods. If, instead of wood and plastic, the homes were made of brick and concrete, the fire wouldn't have been nearly as dangerous, he says. These new communities will have sewers and piped, clean water.

Where homes can't be rebuilt, he says, residents will be forced to transfer to new apartments.

The city is trying to ban recycling of plastic on the ground that most of the materials here contain substances that are dangerous to ragpickers and to consumers who put food in the bags.

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