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Trash pickers in India go to waste

Ragpickers at a squatters camp in New Delhi

A ragpicker sifts through trash at a squatters camp in New Delhi, India.

A boy stands among piles of trash at a squatters camp in the Rama Krishna Puram neighborhood of New Delhi.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: Today is a holiday in India. It's called, appropriately enough, "Holi." The Hindu festival marks the coming of spring. And on the streets, people smear each other with brightly colored powder. But in the Indian capital Delhi, some of the poorest residents aren't in a celebratory mood. They're angry that city bosses wanting to spruce up the metropolis plan to hire private contractors to collect trash from the streets.

From Delhi, Raymond Thibodeaux reports.


RAYMOND THIBODEAUX: Bhole Kashyup sorts through bags of trash for aluminum cans, glass bottles, cardboard boxes -- anything he can sell to junk dealers. He came to Delhi as a young man 15 years ago to work as a cook, but this is as far as he got -- a ragpicker, more like a freelance recycler. It's a job he hates, but even at $2 a day, it's still a job.

BHOLE KASHYUP: I've never seen it this bad. We used to earn 350 rupees a day. Now it's down to about 100, which is just not good enough. So now my wife and my children must work alongside me. I've had to take my four children out of school.

His anger is directed at Delhi's city government. The city is handing off some of its responsibilities to private contractors, everything from bus service to trash collection. That means trash pickers like Bhole are barred from collecting garbage in areas of the city that have already been privatized. Soon the entire city will be off limits. In Delhi alone, there are as many as 250,000 who make their living off of what others throw away.

KASHYUP: Everything is getting handled by private operators who have no use for the poor. There are no jobs for us anymore because of the government's decision to privatize. We have to run away from Delhi.

More and more cities across the country are privatizing municipal tasks, in hopes of saving money while improving services for residents.

Bharati Chaturvedi is director for Chintan, a charity that supports ragpickers.

BHARATI CHATURVEDI: Trash has become an especially valuable commodity in our country. We're talking of displacing hundreds of thousands of small, private players in favor of just two or three really large players.

Because those large players -- the private companies -- have first rights to the garbage, people like Bhole are being shut out of the system.

CHATURVEDI: That's unfortunate because a lot of the small players are able to provide personalized services. They recycle 2,000 tons of waste every single day in the city of Delhi. So why throw them out?

City officials say they don't want to throw anyone out. On the contrary, they've urged private waste companies to hire the ragpickers.

Parth Shah is president of the Center for Civil Society. He agrees with the decision to privatize trash collection, because city trash workers weren't doing a good job. On any given day, nearly 40 percent of trash collectors don't bother showing up for work.

As an alternative, Shah says the ragpickers could form their own companies.

PARTH SHAH: We have suggested to governments in other cities to organize them as a cooperative. Let them bid for the contracts. They know how to run this service. This is what they've been doing for the last 20 or 30 years.

In the meantime, Bhole and his family walk past the trash collection areas that are now closed off to them. Bhole says he hates seeing so much good waste going to waste.

In New Delhi, I'm Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

A ragpicker sifts through trash at a squatters camp in New Delhi, India.

A boy stands among piles of trash at a squatters camp in the Rama Krishna Puram neighborhood of New Delhi.

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