Culture & Livelihoods: Bala and the Many Lives Behind Waste

Bala and the Many Lives Behind Waste

By Megha Raha

Illustrative image. Source: Mumtahina Tanni from Pexels

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

We all have heard this many times before, haven’t we? But today I will take you through what it means to live this proverb – the reality of the waste sector and how we all have been a part of the problem.

Bala

Bala, a 64-year-old lady, has opened her shop after a long gap of the second lockdown due to the pandemic. She is a local recycler who owns a scrap shop in one of the well-known neighbourhoods of Kolkata where households drop off their saleable waste materials at a flat rate. Her small shop is organized with more than fifty categories of wastes that will be transported to the waste aggregators at the end of the week. Once you spend more than ten minutes in Bala’s shop, you start noticing the intricate details of her work. She has a modern weighing machine and a calculator to carry on her daily business. Her skill in identifying the value of different kinds of waste is flawless. She is wearing a mask and a pair of gloves to maintain all the safety precautions against the deadly virus. On asking she responds, “Being disciplined helps me build better relationships with my customers”.

Like Bala, about 93% of the population in India is involved in the informal sector (as per the Economic Survey of 2018-19). The waste sector is majorly informal with different actors at different levels of hierarchy depending on their socioeconomic position. They work daily under the challenging environmental conditions and serious health impacts. Under the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016, the waste pickers’ role was recognized as a separate occupation. It further encouraged the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) to integrate them into the formal system of waste collection and disposal. Five years later, they are still unrecognized in most of the cities in India.

Coming back to Bala, she has been working in the waste sector since she got married at 21. Her husband was the former owner of the shop. In the beginning, she was unsure of how selling waste in the market could be a decent means of livelihood. But with time and observation she has come to understand what is valuable. Bala, with her kind endeavour, has managed to create a strong customer base as well as find aggregators who buy scrap from her regularly. After her husband’s death, she took over the shop, raised her daughter and paid for all her expenses. Now in her old age, she opens the shop only thrice a week. Her daughter has finished her educational degree and works at a reputed multinational company. Bala has some informal waste workers under her who pick waste from different places, clean it up and deposit at her shop. Looking back at the days when she started this business of segregating and reselling scrap, she smiles saying, “I have gained lots of knowledge in this sector, it is not an easy task to learn from scratch and be called the kabadiwalli in the neighbourhood”. She goes on to show me the different categories of scraps she manages with a sense of pride. I stood there completely mesmerized by her neatly organized work.

Zine on product cycle by Wonders of Waste

The waste recycling sector has emerged as one of the highest valued sectors in the last few decades. There are thousands of waste pickers, labourers and dealers who are engaged in the value chain of the circular economy. The environmental organizations have recently started advocating on the importance of recycling along with reducing and reusing consumer products. However, the fact is that the informal sector labourers have existed for a much longer period of time carrying off the burden of the elite class. The term “waste” here itself has a debatable meaning following the colonial cultural outlook which associated waste with race, and the deep rooted caste system in India where the marginalized and the Dalit communities engaged in the profession are reduced to an equivalent of what is been called as waste to who is been called as waste. However, this is a discussion for another time.

It needs to be emphasized that the informal waste picking communities are the pioneers in the field of recycling. They have managed to build their own infrastructure with very limited resources and capacity. During the pandemic, workers engaged in the waste recycling sector, formed a significant part of frontline workers who provided their services alongside the formalized waste collectors. With the emergence of scientific machines and private companies entering the space of collecting and transporting wastes from various households and institutions, most of their jobs were already threatened. Their efforts and contribution in building of the cities have remained unrecognized as they find themselves in a dilemma trying to save whatever is left for their livelihoods.

While we speak about sustainable living and waste reduction, we simply forget this section of the population who have made this possible in practice. The story of Bala is a reminder for us to identify the value of their knowledge that has saved our streets from turning into a huge pile of dump. The dialogue around waste management should encourage the local recyclers to be a part of the platform where they are acknowledged, and can talk about the incomparable work they do.

The way we have evolved, embracing bulk consumerism and dumping a mixed garbage of food wastes, paper, metal scraps and plastics, has resulted in the dehumanizing practice of sorting out recyclables from these smelly bags and trash bins. The waste pickers, who live by the streets and the railways, are not unskilled migrated labourers. They have worked their way to acquire the know-how of finding value in our discards. Their work is not only saving the environment but also saving a huge amount of cost for the local bodies.

In return, they are living in poor conditions with the risk of catching life-threatening diseases. The least we can do is to start segregating and handing over all the dry and recyclable wastes to them. It takes us less than a minute to throw that one crumpled paper into the trash bin along with other kinds of wastes, but that one paper when collected in bulk might become a source of income for the scrap dealers. Next time, when you take your garbage bag outside, give a thought about the treasure you could have saved for the others.

Megha Raha is a postgraduate in M.A. Development from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. A former graduate in Accounting & Finance, she found her true calling in the development sector while she started volunteering with various NGOs when in college. She switched to the development sector, which has given her a deep passion to work for a holistic environment. Her interest areas are around the livelihoods of the informal workers and waste management. She has a small initiative named Wonders of Waste where she along with her team creates recycled outdoor settings for cafes and exhibitions by sourcing materials from local recyclers. During her free time, she loves listening to music and cooking innovative dishes. 
You can reach her here.

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