|Cows hanging out in front of the mountain o' garbage. The little black specks in the sky are birds. This picture really doesn't do the vastness of the mountain justice.|
The other day, I went on a field trip with colleagues to Ghazipur landfill, a.k.a "trash mountain" (like Space Mountain, except not at all.) A little background, December 9-11 we had officers from around South and Central Asia come to New Delhi for a conference to discuss regional environment, science, technology, and health issues. On third day, we spent the morning visiting a material recovery center and schools run by the NGO Chintan, an organization that works with wastepickers in Delhi, as well as stopping by the Ghazipur landfill, one of the oldest and largest landfills in Delhi.
First stop, Bhopura Material Recycling Facility. Here the NGO employs mainly women from the surrounding wastepicking community to work regular hours in a formalized setting. They receive garbage from three of the Taj luxury hotels in Delhi and they sort through it, separating out wet waste for composting from dry waste, which they sort into the different piles (plastics, tin, newspapers, etc.)
|Women sorting through the dry waste|
Oh, and when I say they "receive" waste from the hotels, I mean they pay the hotels for the privilege of taking their garbage away. They would like to process the waste of many of the other luxury hotels, but they can't afford to pay the price they are requesting. This is a totally foreign concept to us in the States as we generally consider waste removal a service and actually pay others to take it. It's a little mind-boggling that these hotels, which generate a ton of garbage every day, then turn around and sell it.
|The school for four and five year olds|
We then visited a couple schools run by Chintan where the children of wastepickers (both those of the women at the material recovery center and others) go while their parents are working. The schools are small and simple, but they are schools nonetheless. For many children in this community, school is a luxury. If they are not out sorting through trash with their parents, they are often at home, where the older kids are tasked with caring for the younger ones while the parents are working. These schools are small, as you can see from the picture, and each serve between 50 and 100 kids (I think, I don't have the exact numbers with me). They attend in shifts (morning/afternoon) while the goal of getting the kids caught up to their peers so they can be mainstreamed into standard public schools.
One of the schools (the one pictured above) was right in the middle of a pickers' community surrounded by both sorted and unsorted waste.
|Right outside the school door|
|Line of broken toilets|
The health effects of this work are staggering, though. Respiratory illness is a real threat, especially to children and the elderly. The work is dangerous, as the trash pile has hot spots and will spontaneously combust in certain areas every once in a while. The women at the materials recycling center talked about how they felt safer now. There were no cows or dogs to contend with; no other wastepickers who might attack you; no men who might try to attack you as you worked out in the garbage pile alone. The wastepickers are the lowest of the low in Indian society. Groups like Chintan are working to not only protect their basic human rights, but teach them about their basic human rights.
There are a lot of stories out there about India's waste pickers, better than anything I could write, both in newspaper articles (like this one by Reuters, or this one by LA Times.) The book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo is also an excellent look at a community living in a Mumbai slum whose main protagonist is a waste sorter. If you are interested, you should look into them.