Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
And they blew on their paper cups, and stared through the steam. Then they drank half a bottle, of Ragpicker’s Dream
where, the whiskey keeps following, cold pitchers of beer…” sang Mark Knopfler from his album, Ragpicker’s Dream, during his Mumbai concert in 2005.
Forty-to-year-old ragpicker Suresh Shankar Pawar works at the Breach Candy Swimming And Bath Trust for FORCE (Forum of Recyclers, Communities and Environment). One of the approximately estimated 85,000 ragpickers in the city, he wears his profession’s legitimacy on an identity card from the NGO, with his personal details, photograph and an accompanying number. For composting wet waste to create fertilizer, and collecting dry waste to recycle it, Pawar earns between Rs 100 to 150 every two days.
FORCE, registered in 2000, came together with conscious citizens like Poonam Hudar and Prakash Sonavane (current executive trustees) after a disturbing visit to the Deonar dumping grounds at Chembur. They eventually started working with 300-odd ragpickers in the area. Today, their organised ‘force’ numbers 1,500 with an area of activity, spreading over crucial city wards D, H and K West.
The first issue to be addressed was the ragpicker’s profession itself. “We classified the workers according to their areas of operation and spread awareness among residents through citizen groups on the importance of segregating dry and wet waste,” Hudar remembers. They also trained the ragpickers in sorting waste efficiently, and procured for them sheds from the BMC and machinery, courtesy corporate sponsorship.
The 15,000 square feet FORCE waste sorting ground at Bandra Reclamation, granted by the BMC, is exemplary of this. Twenty-year-old Harish
Sayani is the outfit’s expert hand. He tells us while pushing pet plastic bottles into a crushing and recycling machine: “I came here three years ago from my village in UP to earn for my family. From the Rs 3000 I earn monthly, I manage to send Rs 1,500 back home.” New income areas arose from composting wet or natural waste to create fertilizers. “But even after training the ragpickers, we are able to obtain only 10 per cent of the waste as fertilizer,” Hudar rues. “But that’s to change in 15 days, with the operation of an Organic Waste Converter giving us 30 per cent.”
Finally, a question Hudar is often asked: “How will their lives improve if they remain ragpickers?” One measure to counter such allegations was the admitting of ragpicker’s children into municipal schools. Another, is making these denizens a part of the BMC’s insurance scheme launched recently.
But the road ahead is still long and dark. Sunil Vikram Shah, one of the organisation’s oldest members, has ‘1’ as his ID card number. A ragpicker since his migration from Nepal at age 11, he joined FORCE six years ago. He now manages an entire outfit and is a member of a ragpicker’s cooperative—the NGO’s latest initiative—for marketing their wares. An “anpadh” still, he’s literate enough to maintain accounts. “Sorry, but I can’t speak any more today. My wife is in the hospital. And after the deaths of my first wife and two children, I’m too tense,” he ends. On a monthly earning of Rs 2000 to 4000 Sunil hasn’t tasted whiskey or beer. Knopfler should visit Mumbai more often.
This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/hzau