Nestled in the breathtaking beauty of the Kashmir valley, there exists a group of individuals who are quietly playing a crucial role in recycling and waste management. They are rag pickers, who face numerous challenges while making an unnoticed but significant contribution to environmental sustainability.

According to data published in 2018 by the National Geography Society, there is approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste worldwide, with only 9% of it being recycled. In this scenario, rag pickers, often considered scavengers, play a vital role in the recycling process.

A group of rag pickers from the slum colony HMT in Srinagar revealed that their work comes with social stigma and they are often labelled as outsiders. Without proper safety equipment, they engage in hazardous tasks and laborious work.

Mohammad Imran, a ragpicker from Slum colony of HMT Srinagar said, "We collect trash as it's the only way we can provide for our families. Although it's a challenging job, we take pride in our work, knowing that we indirectly contribute to preserving the environment and keeping our surroundings clean.

“However, we face significant difficulties. Society marginalises us and considers us unclean. With our meagre earnings, we struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes, we even struggle to find enough recyclables to sell.

"Every day, while sifting through hazardous waste, we put our health at risk. It's disheartening that our hard work often goes unnoticed and unappreciated,” he said.

According to Nazir Ahmad, the chief sanitation officer of Srinagar municipal corporation, there are around 120 ‘unofficially registered’ rag pickers in the municipal corporation. They are permitted to collect plastic waste at the dump, amounting to approximately 10 tonnes daily.

“Rag pickers collect various types of waste, including plastic, paper, glass, and metal, from marketplaces, dustbins, and public areas. By diverting these items from landfills and natural habitats, they help mitigate the environmental risks associated with improper waste disposal,” Ahmad said.

He emphasised the importance of rag pickers, saying, “they remove plastic waste that takes centuries to decompose."

Srinagar Municipal commissioner, Athar Amir Khan said that the municipal corporation employs approximately 4,000 sanitation workers, either full-time or on contract, for solid waste collection and disposal in the city. However, the work of rag pickers is not officially integrated into the municipal corporation's waste management procedures.

According to a report published by ‘Rural India’ the Srinagar Municipal Corporation estimates that the city generates around 450-500 tons of waste daily, from households, hotels, construction sites, vegetable markets, and other areas.

The majority of the non-recyclable waste ends up at the Achan Soura dump site in the Saidapora neighbourhood of Srinagar. Due to the increasing solid waste production in Srinagar, the dump site has expanded from its original 65 acres in 1986 to 175 acres.

Akbar Hussain from HMT Srinagar, who has been working as a rag picker for seven years, said, "I usually work from four in the morning until noon, and then take the rest of the day off."

Hussain’s wife and three children also collect waste to support the family. He mentioned that their family became rag pickers due to financial hardships. "Not everyone finds rag picking easy, and there are times when we can't even afford food," said Hussain.

On average, each rag picker collects about 70-80 kg of waste daily. After gathering the waste, they separate it in open spaces near their huts. Cardboard, plastic, aluminium cans, and other debris are then placed into large plastic sacks.

The waste collection takes place for 20 days each month, while the remaining days are dedicated to organising the collected garbage. One of the major challenges they face, aside from difficult work conditions, is the lack of respect from others.

Hussain added, "People accuse us of stealing, but we are simply picking up the cardboard and plastic that others throw away."

A study conducted in India by Santoshi Kumari and U. V. Kiran revealed that rag pickers often suffer from severe back pain in their lower backs (65%), upper backs (52.5%), feet (47%), and hands (43%). Elderly rag pickers, between the ages of 55 and 65, reported even more knee and back pain than their younger counterparts.

The constant exposure to municipal solid waste (MSW) puts rag pickers at risk of developing various occupational illnesses. Respiratory infections, gastrointestinal problems, skin ailments, eye conditions, headaches, and musculoskeletal issues are among the occupational health concerns that garbage collectors may face.

The study also highlighted that women make up the majority (72%) of rag pickers compared to men (28%). This is because women often collect the waste and bring it home, while men categorise it before selling.

According to a senior executive from the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, as quoted by Kashmir Life, "In the past year, we managed to collect approximately 420 metric tons of waste, witnessing a notable increase of almost 100 tons over the last 365 days." Surprisingly, despite this growth, the number of waste collectors has remained unchanged.

The Srinagar Municipal Corporation currently faces a 40% staff shortage in handling the city's waste. According to standard operating procedures, there should be one trash collector for every 120 houses and one road sweeper for every 500 metres of road. However, the staff falls short in meeting these requirements. The city has around 230,000 houses and over 2,060 km of road.

Rag pickers have been working in hazardous and unsanitary conditions for years, as mentioned in the editorial "Rag Pickers in India." They are at the bottom of a system that includes waste generators and aggregators.

In India, between 1.5 and 4 million workers engage in waste picking, receiving inadequate wages, lacking social security, health insurance, and even basic safety equipment. India produces an estimated 65 million tons of garbage annually, with approximately 40% to 60% being biodegradable and the rest being non-recyclable.

The informal sector, which includes rag pickers, plays a crucial role in recycling a portion of the non-recyclable waste.

Mohammad Iman, the head of rag pickers at the HMT slum colony, has managed to support his family of five through rag picking. The peak season for waste collection starts in late May and continues until December.

They collect various items such as plastic bottles, aluminium cans, and discarded cardboard boxes. Despite the challenges and risks involved, Iman has been able to cover the expenses of sending his three children to a nearby private school.

Sara Bano, a 35-year-old ragpicker, said that her husband takes care of their basic needs and the private schooling of their two children. They want their children to have better lives and not engage in rag picking like them.

She added that while managing household chores and caring for their children, women rag pickers in their neighbourhood go out to collect waste less frequently than men. However, during tough times, they actively gather waste to support their families.

Dr. Raja Muzaffar, the founder and chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement and an active climate campaigner, emphasised the significant role that rag pickers play in the environment.

He acknowledged the challenges they face in identifying non-biodegradable materials as they collect waste from dustbins and other locations, including liquid waste. Dr. Muzaffar suggested that individuals can make their work easier by segregating their kitchen garbage and separating biodegradable waste from non-biodegradable waste.

Dr. Muzaffar also stressed the importance of providing better services and benefits to rag pickers, as they are the unsung environmental heroes. He called for the involvement of NGOs to support them and for awareness campaigns to educate people about organic composting.

Without rag pickers collecting waste from dumpsites and garbage collection points, it would be more difficult for the Srinagar Municipal Corporation to handle the increasing amount of waste. Dr. Muzaffar emphasised the need for proper organisation, accessibility to services, and appropriate registration for rag pickers, regardless of where they live or work.

Dr Arshid Jehangir, senior associate professor of Environmental science at University of Kashmir, said Rag pickers' work is dangerous and unsanitary. They come into touch with many different ailments. They are almost open to getting any kind of disease.

Only 10 to 30% of trash is recyclable and can be taken out of the waste stream, recycled, and then put back into the system. While 40 to 60% of trash is biodegradable and can be mixed with other materials to generate fertiliser, only 10 to 30% of waste is recyclable.

Recycling is generally done to some level, and that may be done by the informal sector, which are rag pickers.

Jehangir added, Plastic cannot biodegrade and instead accumulates in the ecosystem, which is tremendously harmful to the environment. With time, it breaks down into little pieces that can go anywhere. It penetrates the seas and the atmosphere. It can essentially move across various systems.

Plastics can be ingested by the species that are already present in our ecosystem when they come there. For instance, plastics are consumed by fish in a water ecosystem, humans then can consume that fish.

Certain chemicals, particularly persistent organic pollutants that are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), may stick to these plastic polymers that have these persistent organic pollutants attached. Heavy metals can also adhere to these materials and are also carcinogenic.

Seerat Basheer, is an independent journalist.

All Photographs by Seerat Basheer.