Baliya Devi knows the waste from the useful. A rag picker in a small town of Jharkhand, she says municipal authorities care little about waste segregation and prefer incineration. And that is causing citizens to breathe poisonous air daily.
Garbage for others is livelihood for me. I have been a rag picker for as long as I can remember. So in a way, my body is a storehouse of pollutants and infections. We smell, breathe and handle toxic waste, and other dangerous things, day in and day out. Other people just cover their faces, squirm and move away from smelly dumps but how would we survive if we did the same?
My work area in Jharkhand is home to a famous Shiv temple, which means there are a lot of people coming into the town both in hordes. During the holy month of shravan, the number runs into lakhs. Though there is a huge green cover, yet with each passing day, our town is getting more polluted.
The waste management in the city is appalling. The concept of separating the waste does not exist. The easiest way to get rid of the waste for our municipal workers is incineration. And this means spread of toxic fumes in the air of this divine place.
We the rag pickers face the worst. We could have earned some money from sorting out non-biodegradable material if everything wasn’t burnt. But our job is to earn a living out of the waste. So even after it is burnt we have to scavenge through it, looking for leftover ‘treasures’. Two years ago, I had got the job a daily-wage sweeper but it didn’t last long. I had to return to rag picking.
As I am ageing, the impact has begun to tell. My eyes start burning every time I go near a garbage dump. My skin gets remain excessively dry because of the dust and pollution; sometimes it cracks and bleeds too. When that happens, I pray to find discarded bottles of lotions with some leftover.
To make things worse, men here often urinate and throw soiled diapers etc on garbage dumps. Do they not know that someone is going to sort that garbage out with their hands? For many people, we are non-existent and invisible.
At the end of the day, if I have survived without an infection, I thank God. But I worry about my children. They can easily catch infections from us. Living in poverty means malnourishment, which makes us and our children even more vulnerable to diseases.
Pollution is not just a work hazard, I can feel its presence everywhere. At home, we use traditional chulhas for cooking, which produce more smoke. With a large family to feed, we are surrounded by smoke at home almost all the time. Coughing and wheezing are a year-long phenomenon.
I do not have access to a robust healthcare system. So illness is something that we have to live until my body gives away. My husband is a daily wage laborer and lays bricks at construction sites. Our incomes therefore, are meagre. On a very good day, I am able to earn around `300. And all of our savings go into our children’s education. We can’t afford to spend it on our healthcare.
My children are the only ray of hope for me. But look at the world we are leaving behind for them. My children and their teachers have told me about pollution, and how incineration of garbage can warm up the planet leading to horrible things. People like us, marginal farmers and poor fisherman, will be most-affected by it, I have learnt.
I wish I could tell the netas and officers that we rag pickers can tell them a thing or two about waste management. Every city or town can be identified by the waste it produces and we rag pickers know the city or the town’s garbage like the back of our hands. We have the local expertise.
But getting involved in policymaking is a distant dream for me. All I expect from the world is a bit of respect and regard for the work I do.