September was the peak of monsoons in India. It rained incessantly. Women from the waste picker community in a slum in North Delhi’s Wazirabad were been in a fix. Their homes, which are also their workspaces, were inundated with water.

Their husbands and many of the women themselves collect, sort and segregate waste. They are also involved in recycling and reselling it.

The rents here are high. One of the women said that her family pays a monthly rent of Rs 12,000 – about what a one-bedroom flat would cost to rent in some parts of Delhi – for a space to segregate and store waste and to live in. The lack of electricity and water is an eternal problem.

There are the obvious health hazards that come with living with waste. Research has shown that people who live and work around dump sites and landfills have a higher rate of low-weight babies, neonatal deaths and congenital anomalies.

Besides, the solid wastes that contain chemicals and contaminants that pollute the ground and surface water that cause eye and skin irritation. Studies in states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Punjab among others have shown that toxins in the waste give rise to a host of diseases from malaria and renal failure to cancer and even damage to the DNA.

Sub-standard conditions

Delhi is home to over 2 lakh waste pickers and, most often, their dependents. They play a vital function in sorting through the over 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste that Delhi generates every day. Yet, their working and living conditions remain sub-standard and abysmal.

A survey with waste pickers in Delhi conducted by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group in April showed the reality of their working conditions. Over 42% waste pickers segregate and sort wastes either in their homes, on rickshaws or by the road-side. They have no designated space to work with waste. About 38% of them reported on working in dhalaos that are typically three walled concrete structures where waste is collected.

The survey showed that waste pickers require adequate space to carry out their work. Further, there is a lack of uniformity in the area of space waste pickers work in across the city. For instance, while those working in dhalaos reported that they have about 100 sq ft to work, those working on their rickshaws said they had only 7.5 sq ft to work. Some worked in as little as 2.2 sq. ft. The waste pickers reported that anywhere between 225 sq ft to 450 sq ft would be adequate for their work.

What this essentially calls for then, is the urgent need for formalised and standardised spaces for waste work. Further, the more decentralised and localised these spaces to work are, the more efficient waste management can be.

However, just the provision of a neighbourhood level space for work in not the answer. It must be ensured that these work spaces are safe, sheltered and hygienic. For instance, the survey reveals that nearly 74% of the waste pickers worked in unsheltered spaces, which exposes them to extreme weather conditions.

It is particularly hard during the monsoons, as corroborated by 51% of the respondents. More than 80% of waste pickers reported having a problem of mosquitoes. This makes them particularly prone to water-borne diseases or those caused by mosquito bites.

There are other kinds of hazards that are faced by waste pickers. About 45% reported that they were in danger of being attacked by stray animals in their work spaces and over 22% reported that they were in danger of being hurt by moving vehicles.

What is the solution?

Earlier this year, the Delhi Development Authority published a draft of the Delhi Master Plan 2041. The Master Plan serves as a vision document for the developmental and infrastructural goals the city aims to achieve in two decades. In terms of authority, the Delhi Development Authority falls under the Central government. However, the implementation of it requires coordination and work from all levels: Union, state and Local.

The Master Plan this time around has many firsts. It talks in granular detail about decentralised solid waste management and mitigation of environmental pollution. It even mentions the need to include waste pickers but falls short in explaining the “how to” of it. To comprehensively brainstorm about waste management but not discuss how the labour of it is to be included is half-baked at best.

Most of these space and infrastructural concerns of the city’s waste pickers can be addressed by the Delhi Development Authority and in the Master Plan. It is well within their jurisdiction. Providing adequate and safe working spaces with necessary infrastructural innovation and equipment is something that the Master Plan must incorporate.

Another lesson comes from the experience of migrants and daily wage earners in Delhi during Covid-19. Most of them went back home due to the lack of income and places to live in in the city. A smart move would be to invest in building labour hostels and shelters for those in the informal sector, including waste pickers.

Needless to say, all these measures must be complemented with ease of transit and prevention from harassment when collecting and transporting waste, social security measures and health security in particular, given the hazardous conditions they work in. This must be a collaborative effort between different government agencies at various levels of governance. Regarding space and infrastructure, the Delhi Development Authority can take the lead.

The Delhi Development Author has decided to set up a Board to hear objections and suggestions regarding the Master Plan. This is a welcome move and an opportunity for citizen groups, communities and individuals to voice their concerns. We have a sense of ownership and belonging to our city so having a say in the vision for its future is our democratic right.

If government authorities are serious about public involvement in building a better city, we must be made stakeholders and truly heard in process of planning.

Shruti Sinha heads policy and outreach work at Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group working on initiatives to minimise waste and consequent environmental pollution generated by plastics, strategising to protect incomes and livelihoods of waste workers and centring their voices for a safer and greener planet.