Earlier this month as part of our work to map the waste picker settlements, Vijay, Aruna and I visited a Corporation-run garbage transfer station located in north Chennai. A garbage transfer station is a place where garbage trucks empty their loads before they are carted to one of two dump yards in the city. This is one of the eight transfer stations functioning in Chennai and also one among the few that allow waste pickers inside its premises. On our visit we were quite surprised to learn that unlike other transfer stations, a vast area around this particular transfer station has a large section of people dependent on waste picking and waste reprocessing for their livelihoods. The entire stretch of the road that leads to the transfer station is dotted with several waste paper marts and a few household establishments that make use of discarded materials to stitch cushions, mattresses, and pillows. There is a hutment located just opposite to the transfer station where one could see several women and sometimes even children segregating recyclables (mostly metals) from the waste accumulated at the station.
The area next to the transfer station and opposite the hutment was once an open dump yard. The dump yard was a source of livelihood for several waste pickers in that area and also for those coming from other parts of the city. Subsequent to the opening of the transfer station a decade ago, the dump yard was closed and an herbal garden (now covered with thick, wild vegetation) was planted. With the closure of the dump yard, the incomes and livelihoods of the waste pickers, and the small recycling industry that had developed around it were also affected. Waste pickers from other parts of the city stopped coming here and those that were from the nearby settlements were faced with the hard choice of looking for other occupations or to go out further to areas like Kodungaiyur dump yard to find waste.
But the people here decided otherwise. Unlike elsewhere, the waste pickers here protested the closure of the dump yard and they tried to barge inside the station premises. According to an official from the transfer station, there was even a scuffle between the locals and the officials. To defuse the situation, the local Corporation officials then allowed the locals to pick wastes inside the transfer station, though the officials are careful to mention that this is not done ‘officially’. Thus, the access to waste is a hard won fight for the waste pickers here who were often at the receiving end of the ire of authorities who disregarded the fact that the dump yard is a source of livelihood for many.
So as to know more about the waste pickers and their work we went inside the transfer station, which was guarded by the Corporation timekeeper. A timekeeper is appointed to keep track of the trucks entering the transfer station and the amount of waste being loaded and unloaded in the station. He was very cordial and also allowed us to interact with the waste pickers inside. The timekeeper also said that they do not monitor the activities of the waste pickers there and they work there at their own risk. He emphasised that as per the rules trespassing is prohibited, but the locals are permitted inside only to avoid any hostility with them. He also said that there had been a plan to rehabilitate them in the plastic shredding unit started in the premises. They even went ahead with the plan and enumerated the waste pickers and also got their consent to the plan. But eventually the shredding machine stopped working and so did the plan. We then spoke to some of the waste pickers who said that they still work there because they had no other option, and they had been engaged in waste picking since their childhood. With little education and no skill set beyond waste picking,they felt that it would be very hard for them to get into other occupations.They also liked the flexibility their work gave them: they said that they pick wastes from 7.00 am to 6.00 pm (with flexible break times) in the evening and sell their collection in the scrap shops nearby, and they felt such flexibility would not be there if they went out for work.Waste pickers also said that they make a daily income of about Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 depending on the quality of the recyclables they collect. Though their daily income out of waste collection seems to be high, the risks they undergo and the occupational hazards they are prone to, overshadows that advantage.
According to people outside of the station that we interacted with, there are approximately 80 households around the transfer station that predominantly depend on waste picking and waste recycling for a living. Out of this only 30 people (26 women and 4 men) pick waste inside the transfer station. Some of the others go to places like Integral Coach Factory (ICF) colony, Kodungaiyur and Parrys to pick waste, and the remaining buy bulk wastes from places like Pudupet and engage in segregation and sale of recyclables (metal parts) as a household activity. The high number of waste paper marts near the transfer station is also an indicator of the once thriving waste related business activities in the area. Interaction with one such scrap shop owner revealed that a decade ago, there were about 500 people who come from other areas of the city to collect waste there, but the number has reduced drastically owing to the closure of the dump yard.
The trip to the waste transfer station and the interactions we had with the waste pickers helped us see and understand how informal waste picking and recycling sustain the livelihoods of a large number of people (not just the waste pickers but also the significant number of others involved in waste processing and recycling). The waste pickers’ consent to take up alternative works in the proposed plastic shredding unit highlighted the willingness of the people to take up other occupation provided it gave them a sustained income. The government action of closing the dump yard with scant regard for the people (waste pickers and many others) dependent on thisworkfor their living and their subsequent protest which forced the corporation authorities to open the transfer station for picking wastes calls for some introspection: perhaps it is time for a change in the government’s attitude and policies towards the informal waste pickers? An all-inclusive policy of solid waste management that accommodates the needs of the informal waste pickers is the need of the hour.
Written by Pradeepan Ravi, researcher, Transparent Chennai