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About one percent of Delhi residents scrape by as trash pickers. Now, privatization threatens to leave them even worse off.
"They don't belong here," says Sultana pointing to three children digging through a mound of wet trash for small bits of paper or plastic. Her own two children, a ten-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, go to school, and will never come here, ever, she says.
"When they want to know where mummy and daddy work we tell them what we do, but we don't bring them here to see it.”
Sultana, 25 and her husband are waste pickers, forced by poverty onto this Delhi landfill with 150,000 other men, women, and children. They are part of an informal army of workers — an astounding 1 percent of the city’s population — that make their living by sorting through trash, gathering plastic, paper, pieces of metal, and other scrap, collectively recycling 20 percent of municipal waste. They each pick up between 50 to 60 kilograms of material daily, for earnings of 100 to 200 rupees ($2.15 to $4.30).
“No one should have to do this,” Sultana says.
It’s a tough life, a squalid daily ordeal of trudging through knee-high waste, digging through sometimes sharp, filthy and dangerous material, and facing condescendence from almost all other segments of society. Nonetheless, they are as eager as any worker to maintain their role in the refuse trade, as it’s the only way they can make a living.
Soon, however, they will be out of work. As part of a push to make the city cleaner and greener for the October 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), one of Delhi's three local governing bodies, has privatized seven of the city’s 12 administrative zones, effectively sidelining the waste pickers.
Progress versus sustenance
Municipalities across India have started to eye privatization as a viable solution to government bureaucracy and ineptitude. "Look around you," says Ram Pal, a councilor in the south zone of the MCD. "The city is filthy and our government staff reeks of inefficiency. Thirty to 40 percent of the workers never even show up to work because they're guaranteed a government job and can't be fired." Privatization, he says, will allow the department to streamline certain processes and make the city's trash collection run smoothly.
But the waste pickers are crying for mercy...
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