A week ago when we visited the community at Gazipur, we were told Mustafa was not there because he had gone back to his village in Eastern India. When he returned, Mustafa told us that a poor family in his village had a son who had broken his leg, and the family didn’t have the money for his surgery. Mustafa went home to give them 10,500 rupees (roughly 200 USD) to fix the boy’s leg. Back in Gazipur he told us he didn’t know how he could continue supporting his family because no job paid enough. Mustafa has gone back and forth between waste collecting and selling chickens, but with a wife and five children to support he is constantly struggling to make enough money to feed his family.
As we sat with Mustafa he began to recount a story he had heard while in his village.
“In Kolkata,” Mustafa began, “one man was told by an American fellow to catch crabs. He did so and the man gave him much money for the crabs. When
the man came to get the crabs, he put them in a bucket and left the bucket out with the top open. ‘Why do you leave it open?’ the other man asked, ‘the crabs
‘No,’ the first man replied. ‘The crabs will not escape because each time one tries to climb out, the others pull him back in.'”
“I am like the crab,” Mustafa explained. “Poverty and lack of education keep pulling me back down, no matter how far I get or what I do.”
Mustafa got up, pushed aside the tattered cloth hanging across the doorway and vanished into another home. Seconds later he emerged carrying a worn gym bag. He set it on the bed where
he had been sitting and unzipped it, revealing folders and piles of papers. He pulled out a single folder and opened it, handing us a leaflet of papers. The top paper had his name, his (estimated) date of birth, and the number of years he had attended school: 3.
“I know the importance of education,” Mustafa told us, “I want my children to go to school. I want to learn and fight for my rights, but I don’t know how.”
In Seemapuri last week, the police came to crack down on informal and illegal businesses and practices. The waste picker’s work is illegal in a few regards. According to the Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2000, which dictate how household waste in India is to be collected, segregated, stored, transported and processed, manual handling of municipal solid waste is illegal unless done by specified workers. The waste pickers usually work informally and thus do not fall under this specification. They handle waste by hand, therefore what they are doing is illegal. Littering is also prohibited by the MSW Rules 2000, and people tend to make the argument that waste pickers contribute to litter by sorting and segregating waste on the streets (many communities segregate in their homes/ in open spaces within their communities, but since they live in informal settlements these spaces are not walled off and can be seen by anyone passing by). Waste collection is predominantly privatized, and private companies claim that waste is their property, so by taking it to segregate, the waste pickers are stealing.
For these reasons when the police come to Seemapuri, they take away as much of the waste that the people are segregating as possible. It cleans up the streets but deprives the people of their only source of income. According to Akbar who lives in Seemapuri, the police come about once a month or once every other month and crack down on everyone in the area. This last time the waste pickers received an unofficial tip that the police would be coming by, and took most of the waste into their homes so the police would not take it. Relying on a daily income from a single source means that losing that source, even for a single day, results in not being able to feed oneself or one’s family that day. The waste pickers depend on waste to survive. Because of this, they can easily be exploited by anyone with the power to take that waste away.
Side note: The MSW Rules 2000 also prohibit stray animals from rummaging in municipal waste bins. I have not seen a single municipal waste bin without at least one dog, pig, cow, or goat. The police have not cracked down on the animals.