Every morning, the entire Sheikh family sets out to work. Fatima leaves her home in a slum colony in the Batamaloo area of central Srinagar at 9 a.m. and till around 5 in the evening she cycles roughly 20 kilometres within the city to collect discarded plastic bottles and gatta (cardboard). Her husband, Mohammad Qurban Sheikh, sometimes goes further, beyond city limits, to towns and villages within a 30-kilometre radius looking for discarded items – using, like Fatima, a three-wheel cycle-rickshaw with a tempo-like container at the back. Their daughter and two sons, ages ranging from 17 to 21, also collect waste in Srinagar.
Together, the five help clear a fraction of the 450-500 tons of garbage that Srinagar's households, hotels, construction sites, vegetable mandis and various other locations produce every single day – that’s the number given by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation.
The Sheikh family – and numerous other waste-pickers – are not formally linked to the waste management processes of the municipal corporation, which employs, says municipal commissioner Athar Amir Khan, around 4,000 sanitation workers either full-time or on contract to collect and dispose the city’s solid waste. “Rag-pickers though are our best friends,” says Nazir Ahmad, chief sanitation officer, Srinagar Municipal Corporation. “They take away plastic waste which cannot decompose even in 100 years.”
The rag-pickers are not only ‘self-employed’, they work without any protective gear in very hazardous conditions – made even more unsafe due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “I resumed work [after the lockdown eased in January 2021] keeping faith in god. I work with pure intentions to feed my family and know I will not get infected…” says 40-year-old Fatima.
The same fear and faith drive 35-year-old Mohammad Kabeer, who lives in a slum colony in the Soura area of central Srinagar, and has been a waste-picker since 2002. “If I get infected [by Covid], I worry it will pass on to my family. But I cannot let them starve, so I go out to do my job. When this corona started, I took a loan of 50,000 rupees from my thekadar [scrap dealer]. Now I have to repay, so I came out for work knowing that there is a risk.” Kabeer’s is the only income that sustains his six-member family – his wife and their two daughters and two sons, ages ranging from 2 to 18.
He and other sanitation workers endure numerous other risks too. “We don’t know what is in the garbage, we sometimes get cuts from blades, sometimes a used injection needle pricks us,” says 45-year-old Iman Ali, who lives in the HMT area in north Srinagar. As flimsy protection against these injuries, he gets an anti-tetanus shot every few months at a government hospital or clinic.
After collecting 50-80 kilos every day, the workers segregate the discarded items on open plots near their huts. They then fill the plastic, cardboard, aluminum tins and other material into large plastic sacks. “If it’s in tons, scrap dealers send their truck here. But mostly we don’t stock, we sell what we have collected and for that we have to cycle another 4-5 kilometres to the dealers,” says Mohammad Qurban Sheikh. The dealers pay Rs. 8 per kilo of plastic and Rs. 5 for every kilo of cardboard.
The waste-pickers, Sheikh adds, usually work for 15-20 days a month and the remaining days are spent segregating what they have collected. His five-member family together earns a total of around Rs. 20,000 a month by selling waste items. “From this we have to pay the monthly [house] rent of 5,000 rupees,” says Fatima, “buy food, pay for the maintenance of the cycle [three-wheeler] and take care of other basic needs. In short, we eat what we earn, ours is not a job where one can save money.”
Her family and the other waste-pickers usually have selling arrangements with specific scrap dealers – there are around 50-60 in various parts of Srinagar, estimates Riyaz Ahmad, a 39-year-old dealer in Bemina in the north of the city. “They [rag-pickers] bring almost one ton of plastic and around 1.5 tons of cardboard to my junkyard every day,” he says.
At times, there are intermediaries like Iman Hussain in this chain of recycling. “I do the job of a middleman between them [the rag-pickers] and the kabadiwalas [scrap dealers] for this entire colony,” says 38-year-old Iman, referring to his slum in the HMT area in north Srinagar. “I get 50 paisa to 2 rupees per kilo as commission from them [the rag-pickers] depending on the quality of plastic and cardboard collected. Usually, I make 8,000-10,000 rupees a month.”
The waste that is not recycled finds its way (most of it) to the Achan Soura dumping ground in the Saidapora area of central Srinagar. It was started in 1986 by the municipal corporation on roughly 65 acres, which was later extended to 175 acres due to the increase in the amount of solid waste generated in Srinagar.
At the dumping ground, around 120 rag-pickers, “unofficially registered” with the municipal corporation, have been given permission to collect plastic there, says chief sanitation officer Nazir Ahmad, "and they collect approximately 10 tons every day.”
While the growing city continues to relentlessly generate plastic and other waste, the frequent disruptions in Kashmir and the lockdowns have forced many waste-pickers to seek loans from scrap dealers, or they have relied on local mosques for food during the lean months.
Beyond these hardships, it’s another problem that bothers them the most: “We don’t get respect from people because of our work,” says Iman Hussain. “Some accuse us of stealing, though we never steal, we just collect the plastic and cardboard that people throw away. But how does it matter? God above knows that we do our work with honesty.”