Presenter: Murali Krishnan
Speakers: Ramakant Khushwaha, rag picker; Debendra Kumar Baral, president of the children's ragpickers society; Gopal Krishna, Toxics Watch Alliance; Sadme Alam, activist
KRISHNAN: For the last six years, 50-year-old Pratap Kumar is up at the crack of dawn heading for houses and restaurants to collect recyclable items. He sifts through garbage with his son and earns barely enough to keep his family of six afloat.
At another end of the city, along the banks of river Yamuna, 43-year-old Ramakant Khushwaha rummages through filthy garbage at a landfill while keeping at bay stray dogs. He suffers from scabies after working over 20 years in this job. Life has become tough for him in the past two years since the garbage collection of colonies was given to contractors.
Now, the city authorities of New Delhi have approved the construction of three garbage incinerators in a plan to get private firms to collect and dispose of garbage. However, the plans pose a direct threat to the informal recycling sector and threaten Khuswaha's livelihood and thousands like him.
KHUSHWAHA: If the government goes ahead with these plants and constructs them, 200, 000 rag pickers will be out of jobs. This is the only job we know and this is what keeps our home fires burning.
Ragpickers have stepped up their campaign to prevent private companies from taking over garbage collection under the waste-to-energy project.
Debendra Kumar Baral, the president of the children's ragpickers society says the government's plans will face opposition.
BARAL: There are thousands in the city whose lives depend on picking up garbage. In this business of garbage, the government wants to bring in private companies and provide the infrastructure. But I don't think it will be successful.
The capital is well known for being the largest producer of municipal solid waste in India, generating almost 8,000 tonnes on a daily basis. As much as 15-20 percent of the garbage is recyclable.
Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch Alliance, an environmental NGO maintains that rag pickers have played a very important role.
KRISHNA: Rag pickers have been contributing in a very sustainable way to the economy by segregating the recyclable material.. other sections are involved in composting. So they were doing an eco-friendly job for the city. But now that the garbage is being destroyed by burning it, more than 300,000 rag pickers will be jobless. On the part of the government, there is nothing to ensure they will get alternate livelihoods.
Critics of the scheme say that far being a progressive measure, incineration of garbage is frowned on internationally. Plants such as these are highly polluting.
Mr Krishna explains:
KRISHNA: This is being done in the name of carbon trade. All the three incinerators.. they are highly polluting and coming up in residential colonies. Waste pickers were doing something which was so good for the environment. Now, a project is being proposed which will destroy the environment and destroy the health of people. And it will emit such toxins which are actually peace time use of war-time chemicals like dioxins.
Sadme Alam, an activist, says the rag pickers will resist the new moves.
ALAM: They are going to fight. They will organise themselves and they will try to influence the government because they have to understand..... otherwise if we are concerned with the environment, then why are we doing this?
There are approximately 1.5 million waste pickers in India who are at the lowest rung of the occupational ladder and often the most marginalised.
What will happen to them should the government move ahead with its plans is unknown as they often have no other alternatives for employment.