By Bharati Chaturvedi & Chitra Mukherjee
Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group
Sayra Bano, aged 32, has always lived near the landfill in Bhalaswa, North Delhi,
the place where much of Delhi’s nearly 8000 metric tonnes of trash is dumped
every day. Sayra was just 6 months old when she moved to Delhi, along with
her parents, 2 brothers and 2 sisters, from Kolkata in West Bengal. Sayra never
got to go to school. She spent her time picking through trash on the landfill,
with her parents and siblings. They would spend the day separating paper,
plastics and a hoard of other recyclable materials from soggy discarded food,
used sanitary napkins and diapers, rusted blades, needles and syringes: stuff
thrown indiscriminately in the city’s mixed garbage.
Her family was very hardworking and struggled from dawn to dusk on
a dangerous landfill where avoiding severe burns from spontaneous
combustion of methane-rich waste was the norm. The mounds of soggy wet
waste were treacherous and they often slipped and fell right into it. Trucks
carrying garbage would sometimes start an avalanche of trash, almost burying
hundreds of wastepickers in the landfill. This was the only life Sayra and her
Growing up, Sayra’s hard life continued. The living conditions were dismal. They
had no electricity, safe drinking water or access to clean toilets. Her husband
Lutfar, also a wastepicker, despaired about ever being able to make their lives
and those of their 5 little children better.
In 2012, Sayra attended a meeting of Safai Sena, an association of wastepickers,
doorstep waste collectors, itinerant waste buyers and small waste traders,
held in her community. They talked of formalizing the industry and training
wastepickers to help them achieve more dignified livelihoods. Sayra was
curious, if not entirely convinced. She joined Safai Sena and its partner Chintan.
She soon found herself being trained to pick up electronic waste, and selling it
to authorized dealers. She knew all about e-waste in any case, because she was
increasingly finding so much of it in the trash.
Sayra began to focus on e-waste, and made it her specialization. She began
collecting electronic waste from households and shops. She would collect old
mobile phones, laptops, monitors and other electronic devices that people
indiscriminately disposed of.
Sayra became a part of the whole new initiative of Chintan to convert “toxics
to green” and generate livelihoods, especially for women. By her own interest,
she became part of Chintan’s Responsible Electronics initiative, which trains
informal sector workers to serve as grassroots e-waste collectors, and sell to
authorized recyclers. Sayra now sells the electronic waste via Chintan, which is
authorized by the Delhi Government to collect e-waste for safe recycling, to an
authorized recycler. She is directly paid by the recyclers for her work. Chintan
helps collectors like her because no matter what, they collect very small
amounts of e-waste. Under the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules,
2011, only authorized collectors can collect e-waste and they must store it in
self-run authorized collection centres, which are hard and expensive to run.
Besides, the recyclers only accept large quantities of e-waste. But collectively,
Sayra and others collect enough e-waste, along with Chintan’s own e-waste
drives, to attract recyclers.
By doing this, Sayra has not merely conjured up a livelihood for herself, but has
also prevented e-waste from being burned, and poorly recycled, which can
generate dioxins and furans. It is people like Sayra: who are poor, illiterate, but
enthusiastic about being trained for their livelihood, who help India phase-out
furans and dioxins and move towards responsible e-waste recycling. Sayra’s
work also brings her dignity and a far more stable livelihood. “I can now send
my 5 boys to school. I never touched fresh clean paper as a child working on
the landfill, but my boys will,” says Sayra with a satisfied smile on her face.