Bangalore’s Female Trash Pickers by Sonia Faleiro (New York Times)
“Shobha, 25, who goes by one name, is a widow who supports her elderly mother and her two children on a salary of 5,000 rupees ($96) a month. The family lives in a tiny room in a Cox Town slum. Shobha owns exactly two pieces of furniture: chairs foraged from the very garbage dump she visits, stuffed with the garbage she’s handed most often – paper and plastic bags.
“Shobha is clearly poor. But her circumstances are made more acute by the fact that her profession is despised and deemed fit only for people of the so-called low castes. She’s a Dalit, as are most of the city’s pourakarmikas. And like her, they’re illiterate, unskilled and chose garbage collection because their parents were pourakarmikas too. Many feel they’re equated with and treated like the garbage they collect. ‘I tried to explain the new rules to one housewife,’ said Shobha. ‘She replied, “You’re no one to talk to me.” Then she flung a bottle at my head.’
“The impact of Shobha’s poverty on her physical wellbeing is clear. The impact on her job is clear too. She signs in for an eight-hour shift at 6:30 a.m. But long before that she joins a queue of people to draw water from a public tap. She could hardly have slept well the previous night — her room doesn’t have electricity, so to keep from stifling, she leaves the door open. Fear of intruders keeps her awake. During the monsoon, rain sweeps in.
“By the time she reaches work, Shobha is tired and often filled with hopelessness. But she’s responsible for manually cleaning approximately 1.5 kilometers (almost 1 mile) of road and collecting garbage from about 500 households.
“The Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (B.B.M.P.), or municipal corporation responsible for the city’s civic governance, has only 2,000 pourakarmikas on its rolls. These ‘permanent’ workers, as they’re known, are protected by labor laws. But since the 1990s the B.B.M.P. has hired only temporary pourakarmikas through contractors, and so the majority of pourakarmikas like Shobha aren’t covered under labor laws. They’re paid irregularly, cannot comfortably afford basic amenities, and are even expected to acquire their work tools.
“Shobha goes through four brooms a month, at a personal expense of 160 rupees. To save money, she scoops up trash with pieces of metal, cardboard or Styrofoam, which, like the containers into which she haphazardly empties waste, are foraged from the dump. If she can’t find a container, she uses plastic bags.
“Even permanent pourakarmikas are only given thin gloves to wear, but Shobha must handle all sorts of waste — wet, dry, and hazardous — with her bare hands. On her feet she wears the sort of slippers most people would consider too flimsy to venture outside with. In these she tramps down roads and wades ankle deep into dumps wet with animal excrement.”