India's Rag Pickers Compete For Lucrative Trash

In India's capital New Delhi, many impoverished people spend their days picking through garbage — looking for anything that can be recycled and sold. But now there is competition. A battle between rag pickers and new corporate "waste managers" is raging over the trash of the affluent.

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Social divisions are growing sharper in India. That country's middle class is becoming more affluent, and that means it's throwing away more stuff. Some of that trash has value, which has created competition among the less well-off over who can get their hands on it first.

NPR's Philip Reeves has this report on the rag pickers of New Delhi.

PHILIP REEVES: He's got one of the world's nastiest jobs, yet Naval Kasha Pow(ph) considers himself lucky. For 20 years, he survived by rummaging through a trash bin - one particular trash bin. His bin's deemed by those in the trade to be a very good bin, indeed. That's why he thinks he's lucky.

Mr. NAVAL KASHA POW (Rag Picker): (Through translator) Yeah, it's a good bin, and it's made of cement, and it's a big one.

REEVES: Pow works in New Delhi, India's capital. His bin is in the heart of the city, in an affluent commercial area.

Mr. POW: (Through translator) The waste that come here in the bin is much cleaner because they come from the offices nearby. And sometimes the garbage also comes from the hotels. So it's, like, much cleaner.

REEVES: By the standards of this desperate trade, Pow's bin produces some lucrative litter.

Mr. POW: (Through translator) Clothes, shoes, paper, plastic.

REEVES: In New Delhi, all day, every day, a multitude of men, women and children rifle through the garbage. It's the same in every Indian city. These people are searching for stuff they can sell to dealers for recycling. It's estimated the annual value of scraps salvaged from Delhi's garbage is the equivalent of several million dollars.

On a good day, Pow makes a little over $3 - a shockingly small sum, but more than many Indians earn.

People have sifted through India's garbage for centuries. Yet, says Sarita Boye(ph), a social activist, the government behaves as if they don't exist.

Ms. SARITA BOYE (Activist): They live in utter poverty. They have no social security. They have no livelihood security. They're not identified or recognized - rag picking as a profession. So that way their work is not really recognized by the government.

REEVES: In India, this unhealthy and hazardous work is called rag picking or waste picking. There's a move to change that.

Mr. GOUTHAM REDDY (Director, Ramky Group): We would like our rag pickers to enhance their quality of life by becoming waste management service providers rather than being a rag picker.

REEVES: Goutham Reddy is director of the Ramky Group, a big waste management corporation headquartered in South India. The private waste management industry's relatively new to India, and growing.

Reddy says every country at one stage or another in its development has rag pickers. He thinks India's reached what you might call a tipping point, the point where rag picking should be phased out and rag pickers should become waste management service providers, working for or at least alongside private companies.

Mr. REDDY: Because the quality of life of a rag picker is not great. We need to enhance it to a better quality, which give them hygiene, which gives them occupational safety.

REEVES: Reddy's company is one of several with contracts to collect and dispose of Delhi's trash.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Out on the streets, the local rag pickers are not happy about this. They say in the old days they'd sift through the rubbish, collect and sell the recyclables, and only then would the municipal authorities send in their trucks to remove the leftovers.

Now, they say, private companies scoop up all the trash and take it away. Then the companies pull out the recyclable stuff themselves and pocket the proceeds. The rag pickers complain they're being harassed and threatened in an attempt to drive them away.

India's rag pickers are now organizing. They've formed a national association to demand recognition from the government, and their share of the garbage business.

(Soundbite of bottles clinking)

REEVES: Many come a long way to get their hands on Delhi's rubbish. These are Muslims from villages 1,500 miles to the east. They're squatting amid a thick cloud of flies on a patch of wasteland, amid goats, stray dogs and grimy barefooted toddlers.

Today's fresh pile of trash looks pretty high-class. There's a crumpled pair of sunglasses, some orange sneakers, a broken mobile phone, and some expensive whiskey bottles.

Mohamed Mofeskul Ali Khan(ph) says there's nothing for him back home.

Mr. MOHAMED MOFESKUL ALI KHAN (Rag Picker): (Through translator) There is no work there in the farms. I want to do something for my child and now that is why I've come here to Delhi to earn livelihood. If they - the private companies come here, we lose our livelihood.

REEVES: What about becoming a waste management service provider? The rag pickers look doubtful.

Mr. KASEEM PRAMALDI(ph) (Rag Picker): (Through translator) The private companies will not employ all of us. They can't provide work for all of us. People who have money and bribe them can get work, but not all of us.

REEVES: That's a rag picker called Kaseem Pramadi. Like everyone here, he's spent his entire life on the margins of society. He just can't imagine that'll ever change.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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