The declaration of the COVID-19 lockdown provoked a plethora of responses across society. Depending on the socio-economic class and position people occupy in society, the lockdown evoked a range of feelings from panic, anxiety and frustration to relief at the possibility of working from home. What united most people, however, was fear; the fear of not knowing the implications of getting infected, what quarantine would look like and most importantly what were the probable economic fallouts of the lockdown. While these were real fears, the fear and anxiety associated with the lockdown multiplied many fold for workers belonging to the informal sector and for those whose positions were already precarious prior to the lockdown. The waste pickers of the waste collection cooperative SWaCH are well within this category. These were the frontline workers who didn’t have the luxury to wait to think what they felt about the lockdown or had the choice, or the possibility for that matter, to rejoice at the option of working from home. Waste collection is an essential service, which assumes even more importance during an epidemic. Add to this, the fact that most waste pickers depend for their daily survival almost solely on waste collection and it is anybody’s guess as to what choices and options they have even in an extraordinary situation such as an unprecedented lockdown during a pandemic.
This piece is an attempt to give voice and visibility to these waste pickers, who continued to work in the eye of the storm, in the city of Pune, which was one of the worst hit cities in the country. Through conversations and interactions with waste pickers across the city, we have tried to document diverse narratives with many common and some unique threads. Many of these narratives are deeply heartening as they demonstrate the compassion and solidarity that human beings are capable of, while some are indicative of the polarisation that still continues to divide our society and of the battles ahead. The different themes (threads) that emerge from the narratives of waste pickers are discussed and brought to light through this article.
A Sense of Responsibility
The overarching feeling and response that most waste pickers working in the SWaCH collective expressed was that of feeling responsible for the city’s maintenance and cleanliness. During the time of an epidemic of any sort, most people tend to care only for their own well-being or that of their loved ones. Waste pickers have a higher possibility of getting infected because of the waste material they handle and the contact they tend to have with others. They therefore have the most to lose and the most to fear, when it comes to infection or transmitting the infection to their families. However, every single SWaCH member that was interviewed expressed the concern that if they didn’t go to work during such a time, how would the city function.
Anna Naiknavare, a resident of Taljai who works in Dhanakwadi says, “The city depends on me, if I don’t go to work, piles of waste will accumulate in societies and on the streets and that can’t be very good for stopping the spread of the virus. In the end I feel we are all in this together, everyone has to do their part and I have to accept this as my part and play it to the best of my ability.” Another member from Taljai, Girija Kasbe expresses the same emotion, “We all have families, I myself have a husband and three sons and we are all working in the same business, so yes of course there are times when we get worried or scared, but we have this responsibility of making sure that waste is properly disposed of. It is an essential service and I am proud to be part of this essential service delivery mechanism.” Another member from Lokmanya Nagar in Kothrud, Dilip Sopan Bhadakwad says, “ there have been problems, especially while going to work, so many times there was no transport, but there was no thinking twice about this, I didn’t take a single day off during the entire lockdown period. We cater to almost 200-250 houses, we can’t imagine just stopping work.” Members from the Aundh ward, Surkeha Lala Gaikwad, Rebecca Kedari and Pinky Sonawane are of the same opinion, Rebecca Kedari says, “What’s there to think? We are responsible for the city’s cleanliness and upkeep, public health is also dependent on cleanliness no? So even if we are not sure how this pandemic relates with cleanliness, we can’t think of putting up our feet.” This narrative is a unifying factor across the different wards where SWaCH waste pickers work, another member from the Hadapsar ward, Asha Kamble who works at the Uruli landfill says, “I would have preferred to work in a society and I was about to get work there as well, but I got work in a society almost at the same time that the lockdown was announced so it wasn’t to be. Someone has to do this work, if it has to come down to us, we might as well do it properly.”
What is remarkable is that along with this sense of responsibility, the waste pickers express a deep sense of pride in the work they do and recognize its importance, irrespective of how society treats them or how they are viewed by people. Coupled with this pride is a matter of fact attitude that sees them through this difficult period as they continue to work relentlessly and in the face of considerable odds on a daily basis.
Fears and Anxieties
The pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has provoked many different kinds of fears among different sections of society. One would think that waste pickers would be the most scared given their precarious economic position and the nature of their work, however, their take is slightly different. Dilip Sopan Bhadakwad says, “yes of course it is normal to feel scared, but sometimes I feel the fear is not just of the illness alone, you know? The fear of the infection is getting transmitted at a greater rate than the disease itself. We go to societies where we are checked everyday and I think that’s not such a bad thing, but it just heightens the fear even more I think.” A similar emotion is echoed by Girija Kasbe of Taljai, “I feel this barren landscape, no people on the streets, masked faces everywhere is more fearsome than anything else. Who would have thought we would see such a day? Hulgavva Billor from Wadarwadi says,”the whole environment surrounding this lockdown has become suffocating, all these masks are constant reminders that things are different and might never be the same. That scares me.” What comes through therefore is that the whole attitude that has been created around the pandemic and the ways in which other people are responding to it is a bigger source of fear than the infection itself for many of the waste pickers. In a sense then, for many waste pickers much of the fear is created.
Another pressing concern and therefore fear for many of the SWaCH waste pickers was relating to the economic uncertainty created by the lockdown. Anna Naiknavare from Taljai said, “even if we are committed to collecting waste, people don’t want us to. Some societies allowed us to collect waste, some simply don’t let us in. So naturally there is a loss of wages.” Many who worked for offices and large commercial operations automatically lost work and therefore income. Mangal Jadhav from Patil estate said, “we were at home for 15 days during the lockdown, there was no income. It was only because SWaCH gave rations that we could tide over that period.” Asha Kamble from Hadapsar said, “we have been dependent on others for survival and how long will someone else take care? At some point we will have to fend for ourselves and I am not sure how we will be able to do that given the current circumstances.” Some others like Lata Raju Sawant from Sainath Nagar, Kothrud, says, “many people have left for other cities or villages. When they are not there, they aren’t going to pay, so we end up losing out on that money.”
Fear has also proved to be a fairly strong motivating factor for some of these waste pickers with respect to taking better care of themselves and trying to augment their income. All the waste pickers said they were being extremely careful. Dilip Sopan Bhadakwad says, “we are taking extreme care, never step out without a mask, always wear gloves, use the sanitizers that have been provided. We were given training on how to use the PPE kits properly and that has really helped.” Girija Kasbe echoes the same emotion, “we have been practicing extreme caution, we make sure to use gloves and masks no matter what, also I have told my kids not to step out of the house unless absolutely essential. We ourselves don’t step out of the house after work.” In addition to the societies that she works in during the mornings, Girija has taken up work in Taljai vasti to augment her income. She takes a small break in the afternoon before venturing out again after 3:00 PM to collect waste from the vasti. She says, “It’s advantageous for me, in terms of a little more income and for the vasti obviously as waste gets disposed of in a timely manner.” Lata Raju Sawant says, “I go to collect scrap in the mornings, because I can’t survive on the dwindling income I get from waste collection. So I collect scrap and will store it until the shops reopen, that way I have some buffer.”
Another cause of anxiety that the waste pickers expressed was a loss of social contact or having to face social isolation. A lot of them actually use the word sadness while describing the situation. Supriya Bhadakwad of Lokmanya Nagar, Kothrud says, “Usually we have some contact with citizens while collecting waste, we exchange a few words and it makes you feel nice but now the waste bins are just kept in the society premises and we have to collect them. It feels so sad.” Girija Kasbe speaks about social isolation in slightly different terms, “it feels like our status has further taken a hit. People were always suspicious of us, that we are thieves, that we carry disease, imagine how they look at us now?” While such testimonies are reflective of continuing biases towards waste pickers and informal sector workers in general, it is heartening to know that these testimonies are far fewer than the ones of solidarity that have come through. Many of the waste pickers have said that citizens have been very kind during the period of the lockdown. This is discussed in more detail in the following section.
As life limps towards a semblance of normalcy, fears and anxieties about the future continue much in the same way for the SWaCH waste pickers but they have found ways to subvert these and try to make sense of them in their own ways. As Asha Kamble points out, “fear never leaves us, it’s always around, you have to just live with it and not let it overwhelm you.”
Relief and Gratitude about having work
Closely tied in with pride in their work is the relief and sense of gratitude that waste pickers feel about being able to continue to work. Anna Naiknavare says, “at a time when so many have lost their jobs, including educated people, I can just say that I am grateful to have work and to continue working. So many citizens have asked, how we work in such a situation, aren’t we scared but I always say, what’s the fear of a disease compared to the fear of not being able to feed your family?” Naiknavare is the first to say that the payments have reduced to less than half, but nevertheless, he is certain that the work is of essence. He goes on to add, “citizens have been very supportive during this time. Some of them are giving more money than they owe us on a monthly basis. So in the end it is rewarding, citizens wouldn’t have given us more money if they didn’t think we deserved it or didn’t recognize our work and its importance.” Supriya Bhadakwad echoes the emotion, “I think what keeps us going in large part is having work and having supportive people at the work-place. The SWaCH coordinators and supervisors are a constant source of support and we can talk to them about our problems and concerns at any time, but the citizens have also come through for us. They ask us how we are continuing with work, whether we need anything and encourage us to take care of ourselves and our families.” Asha Kamble from Hadapsar says, “work is essential, how else does one eat? I am happy for whatever work there is. At the landfill they often shoo us away but we persevere and continue to work.” Rebecca Kedari from the Aundh ward is of the same opinion, “I am glad that we have SWaCH and that we continue to provide this essential service, firstly it is a source of income and secondly we can keep our dignity through the continuity of work.”
Almost all the waste pickers express a lack of fear while working. What little they feel, they have found ways of allaying as mentioned in the earlier section. Despite knowing the personal and health costs of continuing to work, none of the waste pickers expressed an intention or desire to quit. In fact, phone calls to the waste pickers’ helpline continue to get a considerable volume of calls enquiring about work. The waste pickers of SWaCH recognize and state that they are fortunate to have work given the situation all around. However, there is also a strong feeling that the government and municipal authorities need to start valuing the work waste pickers put in and give them their just benefits. While there has been considerable coverage of their work and they have received appreciation from different quarters, waste pickers continue to struggle in their daily lives for timely payments, rations and essential supplies and other entitlements. As Lata Sawant says, “we have received a lot of media coverage, our work has come on TV as well! That’s very encouraging, but I think it is time that the government and municipal authorities start valuing our work in the real sense. So many private individuals and organizations have reached out to help during the lockdown. The government should also give us our due. ”