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Delhi waste management threatens waste pickers’ livelihood: Study

Jun 21, 2011

Waste pickers and recyclers in the Indian capital face a serious threat to their livelihoods from upcoming waste-to-energy plants around its landfills, reveals a recent study by a local NGO. The study claims that less waste will actually lead to an increase in number of waste pickers.

delhi-waste.jpgNew Delhi: Jayprakash Chaudhary ‘Santu’, 32, collects the waste generated from hotels and malls, segregates them and sends them for recycling to different places.

He believes that waste pickers play an important role in keeping the city clean while reducing the carbon in the environment by up to 20% through skilful segregation and recycling.

But these days he is worried as the waste-to-energy plants will grab all the waste which is his only source of income.

The ever expanding city of Delhi generates close to 7,500 metric tonnes of waste each day which is collected by waste-pickers working door-to-door who segregate and then send it for recycling.

In the last five to seven years, there has been a shift in the process. With the implementation of the ‘eco-friendly’ waste-to-energy plants, the government has sub-contracted the entire process of collecting-segregating-recycling to private companies, thereby threatening the livelihoods of thousands of waste-pickers.

Waste of energy?

The study ‘Waste to Energy or Waste of Energy?’ by New Delhi based environment NGO Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group assesses the socio-economic impact of the waste-to-energy plants at Okhla (2,000 tonnes) and Ghazipur (projected 2,000 tonnes) for which waste will be procured from Okhla and Ghazipur landfills respectively. The plants convert solid waste into electricity through incinerators.


The study has found that the livelihoods of the community living near Ghazipur and Tuglaqabad landfills of the city are either directly or indirectly entirely dependant on waste picking. While many families have managed to diversify their economic activities, most still indulge in waste picking.

The study also noted that most of these families are below the poverty line and only barely able to subsist.

Entrepreneurs who have opened small businesses could slide back into the waste sector. As the waste shrinks, enterprises where the customer base is primarily the waste picking community, is likely to run out of business and return to waste.

“Thus, less waste, counter-intuitively, results in an increase in the number of waste-pickers,” says Seth Schiendler, co-author of the report. Also the opportunity cost of educating children from the waste picking community increases with poverty.

More and more children will drop out of school to augment their family’s income through waste picking. The fact that the Delhi government has failed to take any steps to incorporate the adult waste-pickers in the waste-to-energy-plant has only aggravated the problem.

A dignified livelihood

The local waste-picking communities have protested against the waste-to-energy plants. Waste picker Deepankar Vishwas, 22, from Okhla landfill says, “I consider my work at par with that of a skilled labour. The waste to energy plants have posed a serious question on our livelihoods. I want to continue doing what I am good at.” His fellow waste pickers echo his opinion.

A Public Interest Litigation filed by late B.L. Wadhera in the 1990s in the Supreme Court of India demanded Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to be more efficient in maintaining hygiene and sanitation in the city of Delhi.

With time, the petition has been transferred to the Delhi High Court and is now managed by lawyer-activist Ashok Agarwal. “Waste pickers should have an equal say in policy decisions impacting their livelihoods,” he says.

While waste picking in its current form is hazardous to health and dignity, it offers the potential for a sustainable, well paying green livelihood if it is formalised and upgraded in its current form. 

The report urges the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to identify this ‘green’ workforce and incorporate them into its SWM strategy by making it more labour intensive.

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