In the breathtakingly beautiful region of Kashmir, where the splendor of nature captivates the senses, there is a band of unsung heroes working quietly to preserve the environment. These often ignored and underappreciated individuals, known as ragpickers, play a vital role in managing waste, recycling and mitigating the adverse impact of improper disposal on Kashmir’s delicate ecosystem.
These dedicated people, like Mohammad Iman Hussain, Juman Hussain and Kohinoor Begum, face the challenges and risks of their profession in collecting garbage from various sources and separating valuable materials for recycling. Their tireless efforts not only provide for their families, but also contribute to safeguarding the beauty of Kashmir for future generations.
It is a well-known fact that the world is faced with a staggering amount of plastic waste. With approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic in existence, 6.3 billion tons is nothing more than trash. Disturbingly, a recent study suggests that by the year 2030, there will be 53 million tons of plastic in our oceans, rivers, and lakes.
Every minute, around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are bought. Shockingly, only 9% of the plastic produced has ever been recycled. In this process of recycling plastic waste, the most important role is played by the workers of the land, the collectors and the anonymous champions of this cause: the ragpickers.
Highlighting the challenges faced by ragpickers, a study titled “Occupational and Environmental (Physical and Mental) Health Hazards Among Ragpickers in Mumbai’s Slums: A Cross-sectional Study” sheds light on the arduous life they lead. Research reveals that ragpickers suffer physical and mental health problems in their demanding occupations.
Rag pickers are at risk of various occupational ailments due to their regular exposure to municipal solid waste (MSW). Evidence shows that people involved in garbage collection may be susceptible to respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disorders, skin conditions, eye conditions, headaches, and muscle and joint disorders.
According to a report published in Rural India Online, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation estimates that the city produces approximately 450-500 tons of rubbish per day. This waste originates from homes, hotels, construction sites, vegetable markets, and various other sources.
The waste that is not recycled reaches (most of it) the Achan Soura landfill in the Saidapora area of central Srinagar. It was started in 1986 by the municipal corporation on about 65 acres, which was later expanded to 175 acres due to the increase in the amount of solid waste generated in Srinagar.
At the dump, about 120 ragpickers, “unofficially registered” with the municipal corporation, have been given permission to collect plastic there, says chief sanitation officer, Srinagar Municipal Corporation Nazir Ahmad, “and they collect about 10 tons every day.”
Various waste-pickers are not formally linked to the waste management processes of the municipal corporation, which employs, says municipal commissioner Athar Amir Khan, around 4,000 sanitation workers either full-time or on contract to collect and dispose of the city’s solid waste.
“Rag-pickers though are our best friends,” says Nazir Ahmad. “They take away plastic waste which cannot decompose even in 100 years.”
Journey of a rag picker
For the past few years, Mohammad Iman Hussain, a ragpicker residing in the HMT area slum colony in North Srinagar, has been diligently performing this noble work. Working long hours, often beyond 11 or 12 hours a day, Iman supports his family of five on the income he earns from collecting rags.
Riding on their three-wheeled bicycle trikes, equipped with bins to hold their collected trash, these unsung heroes roam the bustling city streets, picking up discarded items like aluminum cans, cardboard containers, and plastic bottles. Their diligent efforts ensure that such waste does not end up polluting the picturesque landscapes of Kashmir.
Iman, along with his fellow ragpickers, perseveres through the challenges and hardships that come with his profession, fueled by his commitment to providing for his family. During the busiest time of the year, from late May to December, they pick up the most trash.
Iman has successfully supported his family of five on her rag-collecting income. However, the work is not without difficulties. He often deals with cuts from blades and punctures from discarded injection needles. The work continues, as there is no one else to do it but them.
Another rag picker, Juman Hussain, 42, from HMT Srinagar, has been working in this field for seven years. Usually, he works from 4 in the morning until noon and then he has a full day off. Juman’s wife and his three children also collect waste from various places to support the family. They are forced to work as ragpickers due to the difficulties they face, and there are times when they cannot afford food.
Kohinoor Begum, a 40-year-old woman who worked as a waste collector, came to Kashmir 17 years ago from Delhi with her husband and a newborn daughter. Later, they had a son in her house of her from HMT Srinagar.
Kohinoor told Ground Report, “My husband took care of our basic needs and our two children’s education in a private school. We didn’t let our children to work as rag pickers as we do because we wanted them to lead good lives.
They had settled in Srinagar’s Barbarshah rag pickers area after travelling to Kashmir. Then, after some time, they moved to this place. Because of other responsibilities at home and other issues, she didn’t perform this job on a daily basis. Instead, she went to collect waste sometimes, usually when they were having difficulties.
“I was once attacked by a dog while collecting waste, and I’m not the only one, who has experienced dog bites among rag pickers”, claims Kohinoor.
Srinagar city generates 520 metric tons of garbage daily, 100 tons more than the previous year. A senior executive of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) stated that the amount of waste collected has increased significantly while the number of staff involved in garbage collection remains the same.
The SMC currently manages the city of Srinagar with a manpower deficit of 40%. The guidelines recommend having a garbage collector for every 120 homes and a sweeper for every 500 meters of road. However, the official mentioned that Srinagar has approximately 230,000 households and more than 2,060 km of roads, but the existing staff is insufficient to meet these requirements.
Hidden Health Hazards
Dr Arshid Jehangir, senior associate professor of Environmental science at the University of Kashmir told Ground Report that plastic is extremely damaging to the environment since it cannot biodegrade and instead builds up in the ecosystem. And over time, it essentially breaks down into little fragments that may move to any part of the ecosystem. It also enters the atmosphere and the oceans. It may essentially be transferred to several systems.
Dr Jehangir added, when plastics enter our ecosystem, they can essentially be consumed by the organisms that are present there. For example, if they are consumed by fish in a water ecosystem, a human being can consume that fish. These plastic materials that have attached these persistent organic pollutants can adhere with them certain types of chemicals, particularly persistent organic pollutants which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and heavy metals get attached to it and that are also carcinogenic.
The work of rag pickers is risky and unhygienic. They get in contact with numerous diseases. They are essentially exposed to any disease. About 40% to 60% of trash is biodegradable and can be combined with other materials to create fertiliser, but only 10% to 30% of it is recyclable garbage that can be removed from the waste stream, recycled, and then reintroduced into the system. In general, recycling is not done completely, but it does happen to some level, and it can be done by the informal sector are rag pickers, he added.
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