Jai Prakash Chaudhary – or Santu, as he is called by most who know him – left Munger, his hometown in Bihar, as a 17-year-old in 1994 and came to Delhi in search of a job. He first started working with a fruit shop and earned Rs 20 per day. After three months, tired of the low pay, Chaudhary wanted to give up and return home, but a dire need of money to help his family of 11 encouraged him to stay. This time around, he tried his hand at collecting and selling waste material from the Hanuman Mandir area of Connaught Place. He realised he could make up to Rs 150 per day and within six months, Chaudhary had an army of 40 waste pickers working for him.

Almost 23 years later, Chaudhary, now 40, is a poster boy for waste pickers working in Delhi and is the secretary of Safai Sena, an organisation fighting for social security of informal waste pickers.

“We are the first people to ring your bell in the morning to rid your house of unsegregated trash,” said Chaudhary. He was at the inauguration of City of Waste, a photography exhibition depicting urban waste, recycling systems and the men and women involved in this work. “Everyone talks about Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan [Clean India Campaign] with so much pride, but the truth remains that it is us, the waste pickers, who actually follow the guidelines to keep the environment clean. I wasn’t born to collect trash, but I do it and I do it with pride. All we ask for in return is recognition by the government for the work we do and respect of the people.”

Bhopura, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh (Photograph by Rémi de Bercegol).

City of Waste, which runs at the India Habitat Centre till May 26, showcases photographs by six photographers – Rémi de Bercegol, Claudia Cirelli, Bénédicte Florin, Adeline Pierrat, Mélanie Rateau and Pascal Garret – and covers cities like Delhi, Paris, Cairo, Lima, among others, documenting the modalities of waste collection.

In the photographs arranged in the outdoor space of the India Habitat Centre, viewers meet the people who populate the project – Mohan, a young bottle washer, or Mohamed, a waste segregator working in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area.

Bercegol, a French researcher, who lived in Delhi from 2008 to 2012 as a visiting researcher at the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities, became curious about the journey his trash made every day after it was picked up by Moolchand, a waste picker with the South Delhi Municipal Corporation.

Madanpur Khadar, Delhi. Photo credit: Rémi de Bercegol.

“There is an incredibly sophisticated system in place for what happens to the waste once collected,” he said. “Each and every component, down to the kind and quality of the plastic or metal, segregated and then sold for reuse, recycling, compressing or dumped into landfills.”

Bercegol, armed with a small unobtrusive camera, spent the next few months visiting the various locations in Delhi, like the PVC market, Okhla landfill and Kanchan Jung, where segregation and recycling takes place.

Mayapuri, Delhi. Photo credit: Rémi de Bercegol.

A wider lens

Bercegol collaborated with photographers, like Garret and Florin, who were documenting similar processes in other cities, and the Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group to mount an exhibition challenging the representation of waste in urban context.

For French photographer Florin, who has been photographing waste workers in Cairo, Istanbul and Paris, the idea is also to show the conditions they live and work in – open landfills, garbage dumps, warehouses, factories, and recycling workshops where waste is reclassified and garbage is transformed into a profitable resource. “They show the clothes that protect their bodies: rags, strips of cloth, or even plastic bags, but also the gloves and uniforms worn by those whose work is better recognised. The techniques and tools they use also reveal the diversity of the practices and the ingenuity the recyclers bring to their work.”

However, for Bercegol, the main aim of City of Waste is to attach dignity and recognition to the work being done by waste pickers. “We want to take the miserablism [sic] aspect attached to the narrative away from the whole thing,” said Bercegol.

Tikri Kalan, New Delhi. Photo credit: Rémi de Bercegol.

His photograph of Moolchand shows the South Delhi waste picker grinning widely and proudly while showing his identity card. In another, he captures four workers sharing a laugh during a break to pose for him. “One of them untied his scarf to reveal his carefully combed hair. They begin to laugh shyly as I showed them the preview of the photographs on my camera. It was the first time they had seen themselves sitting together, side-by-side. They laughed at the similar poses and one gently mocked his neighbourʼs stiff posture, they teased each other about the way they stands.”

“It is difficult but we have been careful in our choice of photographs to showcase the pride and dignity that each one of them have,” he added. “They might complain about their work, but they keep their head high.”

Rama Krishna Puram, Delhi. Photo credit: Rémi de Bercegol.

Despite attempts by organisations like Chintan, the informal waste picking community remains marginalised and exploited. “There are about 15 lakh people who work in the informal waste and recycling industry and around 1,50,000 of them work in Delhi alone and yet it is a sector that is looked down upon and is often brutalised,” said Chitra Mukherjee, head of programmes at Chintan. “We have dealt with waste handlers being picked up by the police in case of thefts in their area, completely without proof, being threatened by cops or municipality workers to give bribes to gain access to be allowed to collect waste from the doorsteps of households, Muslims not being allowed to access waste in someone’s house because of their religion. We must understand that when a waste picker doesn’t get access to waste, their daily livelihood stops, their child doesn’t get to go to school anymore.”

The City of Waste is on display at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, till May 26.