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Occupational health hazards and challenges faced by waste pickers in India

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The situation became worse when Covid-19 spread in the country. People were taking precautions and maintaining social distance the waste pickers visit the doors to collect garbage.

Alok Pandey

Ground Report | New Delhi: Waste pickers in India; Millions of people in India work as rag-pickers for their livelihood, they are part of the informal sector that employs unskilled and semi-skilled labour for minimal wages. Rag-pickers deal with huge piles of waste, looking for anything from recyclable waste to things that can be sold; this includes metal, plastic, paper, glass bottles, etc. They gather the recyclable waste collected in sacks -usually carried on their backs- and sell them through local dealers.

According to a report by India Spend, there are about 1.5 million to 4 million rag-pickers in India who help in the clean up of a significant proportion of the 62 million tonnes of waste generated annually in the country. They spend the majority of their day scavenging for recyclable materials in dump yards and garbage fields thereby exposing themselves to unhygienic working conditions.

Lack basic protective health gear

Rag-pickers search for recyclables amidst other waste in the dumps which includes sanitary wastes, diapers, syringes and needles, glass etc. They go through these toxic waste materials with no protective gear, making them regularly exposed to cuts, infection, respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, asthma etc.

Rag-picking is often chosen by people belonging to lower economic and social strata of the society which has low social status and acceptance in the society. Many choose this as an occupation as they lack any other choices of employment and are in need of immediate work. But for most this is an occupation that they inherit from their family.

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There are 24 waste picker groups active in India, according to the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, who established themselves as an employee of waste picking not only in the eyes of the government and society at large, but even in the eyes of the waste pickers themselves.

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Also, a study by the Intentional Labour Organization (ILO) found that collectively waste collectors salvaged 144 tons of recycled scrap prior to its transportation, thereby saving 16 million per annum in transportation costs alone, that means each waste picker contributes Rs 246 worth of unpaid labour per month.

But even after their silent contribution to the health and hygiene of the society they are discriminated against and are considered a threat. Due to their working conditions they are considered as a hygiene threat and are also treated with suspicion and derision due to their economically poor standard of living.

The government treats them no differently, the ragpickers lacks basic protective gear and health benefits so more often the children of rag pickers often carry on with the same occupation and are rarely educated. In reality, they are hidden comrades whose occupations are full of risk. They retrieve our waste(papers, plastic, metal, and glass, etc) and secure the environment, and we are neglecting and treating them as untouchables of society.

What waste pickers Do

Waste pickers retrieve paper, plastic, and glass scrap from the garbage. Then these categories bundle and transport these recyclable items to the scrap dealers for sale and dealers transport further who can make it reusable or to a higher level of the recycling industry.

But the condition in which they have to search for recyclables waste or segregate from house waste (in recyclable, dry waste, hazardous) has a direct impact on the health of both waste pickers and waste collectors.

Risk and Hazardous in Everyday Waste Picking.

Waste pickers who reach doors to doors or heap of garbage for collecting waste go beyond the expected risks of infection and communicable disease. Cuts and wounds, animal bites, chemical burns, and inhalation of toxic gas are all part of a waste picker’s daily burden.

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The working environment of waste pickers is very critical because it combines unhygienic context and risk of accidents. They are highly in touch with toxic gas which damages respiratory organs and causes Tuberculosis, Asthma to the pickers. Muscle skeletal and mental stress are also seen in pickers, waking up early and going to sleep late, long-distance walking -often with a heavy sack causes muscle pain and back pain.

Hazardous waste increased during pandemic

Adherence to the basic rules of waste segregation is still low in India. Waste generators are supposed to segregate the waste at the source and then hand it over to the authorised waste pickers or collectors, but there have been instances where households and societies do not comply with these rules.

There is even more limited awareness about the need for separate disposal of biomedical waste generated by households. Waste management systems will need to include more specific Covid-19 related rules, than before.

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