At 10 in the morning, Roshan Kumar is negotiating one of the busiest hours of his daily work on platform No.16 at New Delhi railway station. The New Delhi-Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express has just chugged in and Roshan’s job is to ensure that sufficient number of waste pickers enter the train to pick the leftover food, papers, bottles, plastic packets, plates, glasses and all else considered waste before it goes to the depot.
Each of the 10 boys belonging to the organisation, Safai Sena – which comprises 22,000 kura and kabariwallahs from Delhi-NCR – carries a black plastic gunny bag to fill the waste and carts them away to a shed at the far end of the station. “The waste gets segregated at the shed,” says Roshan. The bottles are separated and machine-crushed to make granules. The papers are set aside in sacks. Juice and chips packets, plastics, match box, etc. are taken out of the wet waste. “The leftover is taken to the Okhla landfill.”
On the eve of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the Northern Railway provided training to Roshan and a dozen others on waste segregation and recycling plastic bottles. When some months later, it floated tenders to let out the work of clearing waste from dustbins at all the four major railway stations of Delhi, and also to pick waste from Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains that reach the city every day, Safai Sena was chosen to do the job. “We got the contract in November 2011,” says Jai Prakash Chaudhary, secretary of Safai Sena, a unit mobilised by Delhi-based NGO Chintan in 2009.
Divided into two shifts, 70 Sena members work round the clock at the New Delhi station alone. “Most people work here only. Since no Rajdhani or Shatabdi train goes to the Old Delhi railway station, we clean only the bins there and segregate the waste. Same with the Hazrat Nizamuddin station. A few bottles come here from Anand Vihar station for recycling though,” says Chaudhary. The workers – between 20-50 years – are mostly from U.P., Bihar and West Bengal. For a salary of Rs. 6,000, they lug in every day about three tonnes of waste from the bins across the New Delhi station alone. “They bring in two tonnes of waste from the 15 Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains that reach the New Delhi station daily.”
Sena’s bottle-crushing unit handles roughly 150 bottles daily. “Once they become granules, they are put in sacks and taken to Bhogpura in Ghaziabad (where most members moved after their dwellings were removed from Geeta Colony). “They are washed there and sold to company suppliers,” says Roshan. Vijay Rai, the unit supervisor, says they work every day of the month. “Trains come everyday, so do we.”
Roshan recalls facing harassment at the platforms initially. “Even some railway workers stopped us because they used to earn money by selling empty bottles.” Things are better now, but he adds: “The police accuse our boys of stealing whenever a passenger’s belongings get lost. It demoralises them. We have been requesting them to stop kanglas (homeless rag-pickers) from entering trains so that we can ensure that nothing goes wrong.” Homeless rag-pickers pick whatever can be sold from the waste produced by other trains. The waste from the tracks is picked by railway janitors and dumped within the stations. At the New Delhi railwaystation, they drop them at a dump yard next to the Safai Sena shed. “We pick from it what can be recycled, rest they take to the landfills,” says Roshan.On platform No 16, he points at a dustbin dressed in a garbage bag. “We have our expenses, each bag costs Rs.3. There are about 250-300 bins in this station itself.” Some distance away, there is a bin without a bag. “A kangla must have taken it; we have no protection from them. There are 100-200 of them.”
So why not Sena involve them too? “Many are drug abusers and are petty thieves; we can’t get work out of them.”