x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ragpickers' dreams may go up in smoke in drive for fuel

New Delhi government's bid to burn rubbish for electricity would trash 250,000 jobs.

An Indian ragpicker searches for reusable garbage at a dumping ground on the outskirts of New Delhi. Those whose survival depends on trash fear their lives are about to be upended.
An Indian ragpicker searches for reusable garbage at a dumping ground on the outskirts of New Delhi. Those whose survival depends on trash fear their lives are about to be upended.

NEW DELHI // Akbar leaned on a battered set of scales while flies swarmed his piles of rubbish. He said he was not demanding much besides "continued access to waste".

He is one of an estimated 250,000 people in New Delhi who make their living in the informal world of rubbish. While ragpickers go door-to-door collecting and sorting waste, Akbar, a 29-year-old who uses only one name, is a middleman who buys the most valuable rubbish and resells it to recyclers.

Those whose survival depends on this grey market fear their lives are about to be upended. Where they see money in those mountains of rubbish, the New Delhi government sees electricity.

Desperate for cheap energy, the Delhi government is experimenting with power plants fuelled by rubbish. One plant is running on a trial basis and two more are under construction.

If those plants go online, they would generate enough electricity to power 50,000 homes by burning much of the 8,000 tonnes of rubbish that the Indian capital generates each day. That rubbish would be collected from homes and offices by private companies, instead of the networks of ragpickers who came to the city seeking opportunity and found it wheeling pushcarts of rubbish through the streets.

Some who recycle 100 kilograms daily can earn as much as Dh22 a day, but most earn about Dh14.

"Where others see filth, I see opportunity," said Akbar, proudly surveying the mountains of rubbish and swatting flies hovering near his mouth.

City officials declined requests for comment, but have said that the issue of rubbish collection is complex and is being studied.

Environmentalists have joined the ragpickers in opposing the plan to convert rubbish to energy, saying incineration is neither clean nor renewable energy.

But for waste pickers, "The single most important thing ... is access to rubbish", said Federico Demaria, a researcher working with the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, a group that represents the ragpickers. "If the [energy from waste] plants start burning it, the government is condemning hundreds of thousands of people to unimaginable poverty."

Their lives are already difficult. A ragpicker named Munari and his five illiterate sons collect rubbish from about 1,700 homes, and must spend much of their earnings on bribes and rent. They live in a cluster of shelters made from plastic sheeting and corrugated metal near a 70-acre public landfill site.

"The work is hard and life tough," said Munari, sitting on a small rope bed in front of his hut. But he added that life is better here than it was in his former home in the impoverished state of Bihar.

The ragpickers' work is a grey area of the law. They pay bribes for the right to collect the city's rubbish, doing the work that the city's 30,000 official rubbish collectors are supposed to do, but do not, confident that the government will not bother to try to sack them.

Akbar's home and office is in a brick building surrounded by piles of paper, plastic and glass 3 metres high. He points to a rusty tricycle loaded with plastic bottles and grins with the brashness of a Wall Street broker.

Trash is "like our gold," he said. "The prices are changing all the time, so we have to monitor the situation and cash in at the peak."

While he enjoys his smartphone and clean clothes, he doesn't know what he or the thousands of other residents of the poor Seemapuri neighbourhood will do if the new plants go into operation.

"Recycling is what 70 to 80 per cent of the residents do. We have nowhere else to go," he said.