Sunday, December 15, 2013

Trip to Trash Mountain

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.  

I assume this is one of those situations where one kid is watching his younger sibling. I could be wrong, however. Turns out a bus load of Americans causes quite the stir in this neck of the woods. We drew a rather large crowd. It's possible the older one was just bringing the little one to see the strangers.

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
After the schools, we headed to the landfill. It was a 30 minute drive from this area and then a ten minute walk. Also, there was dairy farm in the vicinity, so there were tons of cows around. Chintan runs a school in for the children of wastepickers near "trash mountain" as well, but they don't have anything like the materials recovery center yet.

Line of broken toilets
It was a very eye opening day. Despite our tony surroundings and relatively sheltered life in the diplomatic bubble, we do see poverty every day and we do see piles of garbage every day--just nothing on this scale. As India's upper classes grow, the underclass that makes a living off of their waste also grows. But they are largely hidden from society, abused and victimized by police, the rich, or other authority figures. These are people who live in the waste, who breathe in noxious chemicals and touch toxic materials everyday, looking for things of value to sell.  And things of value cut a broad swath. They can be anything from glass or plastic bottles and aluminum soda cans that can be sold to recyclers; they can be used dry cell batteries that can be stripped of their zinc (and can also burn skin if not disassembled properly, which they almost never are.) They can be stale chapattis which can be sold to the dairy farmers as food for the cows.  The wastepickers see value in many of the things we see as nothing more than trash.

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.

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