Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An invisible army helps manage city’s waste

An invisible army helps manage city’s waste

Staff Reporter
Rag-pickers and pourakarmikas save the BBMP significant resources
Safe conditions are not guaranteed to contract workers

Pourakarmikas are not given protective gear by contractors

— Photo: Deepa Kurup

hazardous place: A rag-picker sifting through garbage at the Mavallipura landfill.
BANGALORE: Every now and again 12-year-old Nagendra finds something unexpected at the Mavallipura landfill as he sifts through mounds of garbage. Today it is a discarded mannequin. Worthless though it is when compared to the plastic covers, bottles and scrap metal that earn him Rs. 100 a day, it nevertheless holds endless fascination for this young rag-picker, who props it up as it collapses to the ground, occasionally chastising it with a shove when it does.

Indisputably the most hostile of workplaces, dumpsites like this one are a source of income for rag-pickers like Nagendra and contract workers who work with minimal protective gear, if any at all. Sifting intently through the assortment of waste, braving the scorching heat, the foul smell, the dust and swarming flies, and most importantly the infection, they represent an integral though invisible part of urban waste management.

Among the most disempowered of them are the 10,000 to 12,000 rag-pickers, who largely comprise Tamil migrants and Muslims, and who are not eligible to any form of social security or legal protection from the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike as they are labelled as “self-employed”. “Rag-pickers save the BBMP a lot of money in disposing of and reprocessing waste like metal and plastic. They need to be recognised as being part of a formal system of waste management,” says Anselm Rosario, director of NGO Waste Wise.

Safe working conditions and legislative protection are not guaranteed for the thousands of BBMP contract workers (including over 10,000 pourakarmikas who clean the city’s streets). Ask Krishna, a contract truck driver with BBMP who has been doing this job for many years about safety equipment, and he points to the flimsy cloth mask that hangs loosely around his nose and mouth. “We haven’t been given anything to protect us. It is certainly not pleasant, and we smell foul by the time we get home, but this earns us our living,” he says.

In the city, Ranga, a contract pourkarmika (name changed), works without a break from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., but is given no health cover, rubber gloves or gum boots. This is despite the fact that the Municipalities Act specifies free protective gear and regular health check-ups.

Clifton D. Rozario from the Alternative Law Forum, a lawyers’ collective, points out that the High Court of Karnataka had directed the BBMP to ensure that all contract pourakarmikas are given minimum wages and all other amenities that are due to them under the Contract Labour Act. “However, all this is just on paper. The ESI cover and providing PF to them is a scam. Many do not even know their PF numbers. This is nothing but negligence on the part of the BBMP in ensuring that the contract workers get the facilities due to them,” he said.

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