Ragpickers, Chennai's silent saviours

Without the phenomenal contribition made by ragpickers, the city would overflow with unsegregated garbage

August 17, 2013 07:53 am | Updated November 16, 2021 09:29 pm IST - CHENNAI:

Ragpickers segregate their find before sending it for recycling at Perambur Barracks Gate Road, Choolai. Photo: V. Ganesan

Ragpickers segregate their find before sending it for recycling at Perambur Barracks Gate Road, Choolai. Photo: V. Ganesan

Of the tonnes of city refuse that gets unloaded at Kodungaiyur dumping yard day after day, thirty-seven year old Nagavalli takes a daily trek on the mound wearing a discarded old grey canvas shoe, and digs deep with her bare hands to scoop out enough recyclables to earn two hundred rupees per day.

Nagavalli is among thousands of ragpickers, saviours rather, without whom the city would overflow with unsegregated garbage.

A week, ago, as Nagavalli, saw us approaching, she turned around in a hurry and cautioned. “Please don’t take photographs of me like this. My children will be embarrassed,” she shouted from a distance.

Her son will soon be an engineer, but her daughter is a school dropout. “But, she went to school for many years,” she assured. “I’ve never gone to one. I started picking garbage when I was 12 years old. My husband and I made sure that our children don’t step in here,” she said.

Like many women, she wears a nightgown over her sari as a protective layer when she gets into the dumping yard in the morning. “If I find a glove in the rubbish, I use it. But those don’t last.” Her trained hands know what will fetch her money in the market. “We don’t touch thin plastics,” she said. Like Nagavalli, Shanthi too became a ragpicker when she was 10-years old. “The path that leads to the mounds of garbage is perennially filled with filthy water. This is the only way, and I cannot avoid it,” she said.

“On some days we earn Rs. 100, and on others Rs. 500,” she said. She enters the dumping yard at 9 in the morning and leaves only by 5 in the evening she said.

Twenty-six-year-old Lawrence, however, is young and restless. He wants a better job, and a fixed income. “Being the eldest, I had to come in here when I was ten years old because my father passed away and we needed money. So many people come here, ask questions, look at our plight, but nobody comes forward to offer us better jobs. Any job is better than this,” he said emphatically.

Sitting in front of him on a tattered piece of cloth spread out on the pile of garbage was 50-year old Vasantha whose hands were black extracting copper with a hammer. Beside her was a white disfigured computer keyboard. “It’s one of those machines,” she said brushing it aside before washing her hand with a bottle of water kept beside her, and sipping on a cup of tea. She complained that people only asked her about the stench, but she believes that she has to work for a livelihood and her job is important.

“The scrap that we collect goes to the big factories and becomes something new. Otherwise it will just rot here,” she said. “When I was young I used to clear animal bones and skins. Plastics are better.” On lucky days, they find copper.

(With inputs from Serena Josephine M.)

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