"Green" projects put Indian waste-workers' lives at stake,
"Green" projects put Indian waste-workers' lives at stake
New Delhi - 28-year old Mohammad Azhar sifts through heaps of waste at New Delhi's eastern Ghazipur landfill at dusk, the end of another day's struggle for livelihood and survival.
With bruised and blackened hands, Azhar collects plastics, metals and other recyclable materials to sell to local scrap-dealer for 150 rupees (about 3 dollars) to provide for his family's main meal for the day.
Hours earlier, in the central business district of Connaught Place, Usha Devi is harassed by municipal guards who extort money to allow waste-workers access to garbage dumps.
For tens of thousands of such workers, mostly low-caste migrants, living life at the margins, more trouble looms ahead.
New Delhi is among the first Indian cities to launch waste-management projects, like incinerators, that is bound to cut waste-workers access to trash.
The incinerator that converts rubbish into electricity will earn carbon credits - in the form of money - under the Kyoto Protocol, a global pact which aims at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
While this is good news for electricity producers, it is bad news for waste workers. The Global Alliance of Waste-Pickers, which says it represents interests of 15 million informal recyclers, is appealing to negotiators at the climate talks in Durban who are meeting until December 9 to take their situation into account.
Claiming they are the 'real human force' to mitigate climate change and an alternative to polluting trash-to-energy technologies, waste-workers want access to the UN's funds to help poor countries deal with climate change.
Some 23 such waste-to-energy projects, including incinerators, are planned across India, which will put at stake livelihoods of many of India's 1.7 million waste-pickers.
'Where will we go? We do not have any job alternatives. Does the government want us to starve?' Azhar asks.
'It's a dirty and hazardous job with workers often getting pricked by used syringes or hurt by broken glass. But it is work alright, which helps thousands of families stay alive,' Azhar says amid the rotting mess as crows fly around in the bleak winter sky.
The UN supports incinerators that burn waste, since rotting waste generates the greenhouse gas, methane. India has applied for carbon credits for several of its municipal waste projects, including trash-to-compost, refuse-derived fuel and incinerators.
Significantly, waste-workers play a key role in recycling and reusing of waste, one of the most effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
'Recycling also provides gainful employment to thousands in India and saves the government millions of dollars since the responsibility of recycling is on the informal sector,' says Shashi Bhushan Pandit, secretary of the All India Waste Workers Union.
But rather than support recycling and waste-worker communities, climate funds like Clean Development Mechanism subsidize incinerators and landfill gas systems.
'These projects directly compete with recycling and increase emissions, unemployment and public costs,' Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) India campaigner, Dharmesh Shah says.
Shah contends incinerator technologies will never be successful in India since, unlike waste in developed countries, 80 per cent of Indian trash is wet, organic and low in calorific value.
'The most serious aspect (is) that these plants burning solid waste and recyclable plastics, will be dangerously polluting. Emissions include dioxins and furans, among the most toxic substances known, which cause cancer and birth-defects,' Shah said.
But amid India's soaring consumption and waste levels, supporters of trash-to-energy projects say the issue has a wider socio-economic dimension.
'There should be concerted efforts to abolish waste-picking, through rural as well as urban employment generation, so that they do not have to undergo the environmental and health hazards and indignity,' says Dr NB Mazumdar, Chief Technical Officer of IL&FS Ecosmart, that runs one of New Delhi's three incinerators near Ghazipur.
Their project had very 'little real implication' Mazumdar said, but as a 'socially responsible company, we would try to organize them into self help groups and employ them to the extent required at our plant.'
Lakshmi Narayan, who heads a waste-workers collective in the western city of Pune, said the move will inevitably lead to unemployment and is critical of the government's myopic strategy to privatize waste-management.
'They are illiterate and are unskilled, how will they get jobs? The government looks at it as a one-stop solution, hand over waste-management to a company and displace waste-pickers,' she said.
'In a country where labour and poverty are raging issues, what is the justification for such projects, when it is accepted recycling is the best option and the informal sector is doing a good job'.
Narayan cites the successful collaboration of 2,300 waste-workers with municipal authorities in and around Pune who collect 500 tonnes of trash everyday.
'It is time to acknowledge their role in waste-management, end their harassment and give them an identity by recognizing them as workers,' she said.