List of Waste Picker Groups in Magura
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City Report: Interview with a local Waste Picker
A Conversation With: Subash Chandra Biswas is the Chairperson of the Association for Sustainable Development (ASD) in Bangladesh.
Personal StorySubash Chandra Biswas is a rural development activist who has been working to promote organic agriculture, farmers’ rights, climate change adaptation as well as environmental development in Bangladesh. He became interested in waste management as he realized that the same waste that is now polluting the city could instead be partially composted and used as an organic fertilizer in agricultural fields. On the other hand, livelihoods as well as living status of socially excluded and discriminated waste pickers could be improved. So, Subash surveyed waste pickers in the city of Magura, planning to work on improving their conditions and helping them to link with their colleagues who have been struggling for survival.
Formal Solid Waste Management SystemMagura is one of the 64 districts in southwest Bangladesh, about 175 kilometers away from its capital city Dhaka. The municipality runs the official waste management system in Magura. Households dispose of their waste in community bins and also in the streets and drainage areas. The municipal workers sweep daily and collect waste with pushcarts, which they bring to the nearby transfer stations. The waste is then trucked once a week to larger dumping sites established at the roadsides within the municipal area. The employees of this sector belong to illiterate, marginalized and vulnerable social groups that have difficulty in finding any other employment opportunities. However, the municipal employees engaged in waste management and informal waste pickers generally have similar social backgrounds – their working conditions are simply different. The informal waste pickers collect recyclable waste from the bins, transfer stations, the streets, and the dumping sites. They segregate and sell the recyclables to junk dealers.
Informal Recycling SystemIn Bangladesh, Dalits – waste pickers, or more generally people working in the waste sector – are socially excluded and treated as untouchable. They are not allowed to participate in the social and cultural events of mainstreaming citizens. Subash says, “It is sad and shameful to mention that if any of them even go to school they are not allowed to sit with the children of mainstream citizens.” They are not allowed to use the same cup in taking tea in the tea stall; they do not get equal treatment even in the hospital. Dalits’/waste pickers’ families are mostly rootless/landless and very poor. Both the municipal employees (of which there are about 150) and the waste pickers (there are over 400), earn about Tk.80.00 (less than US $1), which is often not enough to purchase three meals a day. During the British colonial period, the current Dalits/waste pickers’ ancestors were forced to move to Bangladesh from Southern-Indian districts (such as Urishya/Bhubaneswar, Karnataka, etc.). They were then employed at low-wage as daily office cleaners, watchman, toilet cleaners, carrying and guarding dead bodies, etc. They are also put to perform other works that is socially untouchable such as carrying and guarding suicidal dead bodies, disposing of dead bodies, etc. The conditions of Dalits/waste pickers in Bangladesh have hardly changed. For instance, their housing conditions remain unhealthy and precarious, as they were allowed to build temporary houses on the Khashlands or government land, but were never granted land ownership. There is a directive that says the government should provide land to the landless, but poor people are often both unaware of their rights and/or not organized enough to demand their rights. Furthermore, Dalits/waste pickers are often harassed by police and other powerful groups, and then asked to pay bribes.
Waste Picker Organization
ASD-Bangladesh (Association for Sustainable Development in Bangladesh)ASD-Bangladesh has started to work with the Dalits/waste pickers families around Magura City since late 2010. It has already identified 150 Dalits/waste pickers who have been working with the municipalities and more than 400 other informal waste pickers are engaged in collecting scrap materials and contributing to their families around Magura city. Staff of ASD-Bangladesh has been performing mutual sharing with their families about prevailing problems and possible causes of their miseries and has been raising awareness towards solutions. Besides the initiatives at the local level, ASD-Bangladesh with the support from SWaCH and KKPKP in 2011, has also participated in the international experience sharing meeting held at Pune followed by field visit to Municipal Solid Waste Management at Delhi and Mumbai. Mr. Subash believes that through the participation in this National Convention of Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers and Asian Consultation, ASD-Bangladesh has enriched knowledge for working with Urban Local Bodies. On the other hand learning from the Global Strategic Workshop, ASD-Bangladesh has developed its level of confidence in undertaking collaborative efforts together with Magura Municipality and Dalits/waste pickers. Finally Mr. Subash concluded that ASD-Bangladesh will strengthen its facilitation initiatives initially at Magura city, also linking with Dalits/waste pickers in other cities towards promoting livelihoods, protecting rights and better Municipal Solid Waste Management system.
Current Central IssuesDalits/waste pickers are mostly illiterate, not aware of the causes of their impoverishment, their citizens’ rights, available resources and opportunities for them. Subash plans to facilitate Dalits/waste pickers to be organized, as he sees them as “powerless and voiceless” within the society. He plans to develop their potential capacities to be organized, advocate within the municipality to support Dalits/waste pickers so that they can improve their living and working conditions. He dreams that the waste pickers may be able to obtain official recognition to carry out door-to-door collection, and at source-segregation could improve economic condition and recycling. He would also like to explore more potential environment-friendly technologies, and facilitate the processing of organic materials through biogas generation, composting, etc. In this scenario, the Dalit/waste pickers may be the owners of a self-managed and environmentally sound waste treatment plant.