Non-local ragpickers who scrounge for trash find conflict zone called Kashmir ‘safer’ than ‘shining’ mainland India. Even though they live shabbily and are often passed as ‘lowlife’ while living on society’s trash, they’re compelled to come to the valley because of its ‘hospitable’ landscape.
Beneath the jagged hill and the shadow of tall popular trees, a lanky and gaunt-faced Bengali rag-picker Mohammad Mushkad Ali is relaxing on a trash filled bag after a day’s work. Amid garbage mounds and scattered shanties capped with polythene and iron sheets, the stubble-sporting ragpicker is watching children play and giggle behind the trash bags.
Ali is reluctant to talk, and smiles to himself while seeing the shabby kids of his tribe running carelessly around. “I’ve worked as a ragpicker in many parts of India,” he turns attentive. “Our entire family is engaged in trash collection.”
In Kashmir, he continues, as the sleepy slum echoes with the kids’ laughter, he has been collecting trash from last seven years now. Even as the slum reeks with nauseating air, Ali’s tribe calls it home—where they end their day by earning around Rs 450 each.
But despite their ‘grimy’ lives, Ali candidly asserts that his tribe’s living condition is “far better” in Kashmir—where non-locals have taken over waste-collection and recycling over the years—as compared to many Indian states.
“We’re collecting whatever we find as waste and resell it,” he says, while taking a walk around the slum. “Before selling trash to junk dealers in bulk, we sort and segregate it.”
Ali’s trash-collecting clan daily walk miles from their shanties, venture into different areas of Kashmir in search of waste. They commonly pick recycling trash—including utensils, bones, disposal, paper boxes, sanitary napkins, shoes, disposable needles or syringes, bottles and other scrap—from streets, hospitals, pharmacies and clinics.
Despite playing their role in maintaining society’s hygiene, they’re mostly passed as “lowlives”. That, however, doesn’t stop them from venturing out to feed their families.
One such nonlocal rag-picker tribe comprising of 12 Bengali families is camped at Pulwama’s Newa area. The trash-surrounding shanties are bereft of ventilation and sanitation here.
Shedding light on the “extremely difficult” life of ragpickers, the study titled Occupational and Environmental Health Hazards (Physical & Mental) Among Rag-Pickers in Mumbai Slums: A Cross-Sectional Study reveals that ragpickers suffer from physical as well as mental ill health.
“Dog bites are common among rag-pickers. Redness of eyes, headache, backache, accidental injuries are very common among them,” the study notes.
The study terms the women ragpickers as anemic, who carry on large size nylon bags on their shoulders for collection of trash while male young mostly use carts.
“We mainly collect trash from the areas falling in close range of our slums, as we’ve to take care of our small children and cook food,” says a woman ragpicker.
The children play with filthy toys found in the garbage before the start following their parents in waste collection.
Notably, an Indian NGO, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group that works with ragpickers and other recyclers, have documented that millions are working in trash collection across India and their numbers are estimated over 1.5 million.
At Newa Pulwama, a Bengali slum is spread over more than one kanal of land. “We pay monthly Rs 5,000 to the landowner for it,” says Kabir Hassan, a young rag picker. “Our landowner is a very good and generous man. He exempted our rent after our shanties were destroyed in fire in 2016,” he says.
“After we lost everything to fire, our landowner and other Kashmiris living nearby helped us with clothes, rice, cash, and makeshift shelter.”
Even during the pro-Burhan Wani protests in 2016 when economic activity had come to a grinding halt in the valley, Kabir says, Kashmiris helped his tribe with cash and kind.
“Ever since I came to work here, I’ve found Kashmiri people very helpful,” he says. “Unlike in places like Delhi, this hospitable quality compels us to come and work here every time. We feel safer here than in Indian cities.”
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