With civic bodies in Delhi-NCR yet to earnestly adopt segregation of household garbage, a voluntary organisation, Safai Sena, has carved out an effective model that links livelihood generation with better waste management

Do you know how much waste we as residents of Delhi generate in a day? To go by what reaches the Ghazipur and Okhla landfills, it is over 8000 metric tonnes. And the way the tonnes are piling up, these spaces would soon be full, the reason why many landfills in the National Capital had to be shut down. Experts and activists have been clamouring for better waste management for some time now, one suggestion being segregation of waste at source. The civic authorities in Delhi-NCR are yet to take it up earnestly but there is a sub-text here. And a good one at that! A voluntary organisation comprising 22,000 kura-kabariwallahs (waste collectors) of Delhi-NCR has been quietly working towards segregating household waste since 2009. So far, they have been able to segregate solid waste generated by about 20,000 households in the NDMC, MCD and Ghaziabad Nagar Nigam (GNN) areas on a daily basis.

Jai Prakash Chaudhary, secretary of Safai Sena, points at a pretty effective model. It plays a dual role — helps waste collectors earn a regular income by selling recyclable waste without having to look for it endlessly, and allows waste to be segregated at source. So gladly, every day, between 7 a.m. and 12 noon, members make the rounds of households in 25 areas of Delhi-NCR. The organisation, mobilised by Delhi-based NGO Chintan, picks up waste for segregation from 6000 households in the NDMC areas alone. “We have a contract with NDMC to collect waste door to door,” says Chaudhary.

The contract is a boon in more ways than one. “It helps us escape bullying of safai karamcharis and local contractors which we have been facing in the MCD and GNN areas,” says Chaudhary, a rag picker from Bihar. NDMC has given them space to workwherever possible. “We take the waste to these designated areas, segregate what is recyclable from the wet waste which is often food,” says Nazir, who collects waste from Netaji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar.

MCD, in charge of garbage collection in most parts of the city, is yet to adopt segregation methodically. Sena members who collect waste door to door in these areas are doing it on their own. But not without facing continuous bullying by MCD safai karamcharis. “While we collect waste from people’s houses every day, they take away the monthly charge for it,” says Om Prakash, who picks up waste from Laxmi Nagar, East Delhi. “They tell us to make our money by selling the recyclable waste discarded by households along with the food waste. But not every day do you get something worth selling.”

So how is waste segregated in MCD areas? “In our rickshaws. We keep two gunny bags, one for recyclable waste, one to be taken to the MCD waste bins. Haath ke haath hi alagh kar dete hain,” says Om Prakash.

The story of MCD safai karamcharis’ bullying doesn’t seem to end there. The waste collectors say they have to pay Rs.200 every month to the safai karmachari of respective areas to drop the leftover waste in the MCD dustbins, whose contents finally go to the Ghazipur landfill. “Anybody can throw waste there but they charge us money,” says Om Prakash.

Ismail Khan, a waste collector from Ghaziabad, is bullied too, by local contractors under the GNN. “We collect waste from households. Their contract with GNN is only to collect roadside waste. Yet, they demand Rs.400 from us every month because we drop the leftover waste in GNN dustbins.” If they get late even by a day to pay them, Ismail says, “they charge a penalty of Rs.200.”

What happens if you don’t pay them? “They will beat you. Once, I was almost shot dead when I tried to reason with them,” says Chaudhary. “Fed up of corruption,” Chaudhary fought the last MCD elections from Trilokpuri area. “But I lost to money power.”

Complaints aside, members are happy that they have an identity card, a face mask and an apron with Chintan written on it. “Because of the I-card now, Police don’t harass us much,” says Nazir. No hand gloves? “Most kurawallahs are not used to them. Slowly, we are trying to show them how waste can take a toll on their health,’ says Imran Khan, who monitors the Sena work at Chintan.

Chintan, says Imran, is “in talks with MCD” for a contract to collect household waste door to door.