by Amulya Sridharan

“Touch wood!! Very few people are lucky to love their jobs!!” I look for something wooden around me and then place my hand on my head while saying this to a friend.
Although I am sensible enough to know that the probability of warding off the evil with my ritual is zero, I proceeded to indulge myself in this whimsical superstition. The tendency to try and control the uncontrollable with simple gestures exists in all cultures. After all, there was once a generation believed in the caste system and untouchability, to which the government responded with reservations based on one’s caste rather than his or her economic status. Regardless, many among the current generation continue to believe in marrying into the same social community for the sake of tradition. The taboos against people based on caste, religion and profession is something that runs deep in our belief system. Sometimes, we proudly call it “culture”.
One such taboo common to all cultures is to cringe at a pile of garbage and the person who cleans it. It is not seen as a respectable profession, more so in India. The Indian population heavily influenced by cinema/media is convinced that the garbage-man’s job is the poor man’s last resort to find a living. Most waste-pickers share this opinion, and believe that it is their last resort to make a living and that it is definitely not a respectable way to do so. As a result they have few rights and little claim to quality of lifestyle. Research shows that their life expectancy is considerably lower than the national average (39 years), and more children are joining the profession due to lack of options.
It is ironical that we have relegated the waste-picking community to such a lowly status in a country where we complain about our unclean surroundings. We also throw out plastic bags/banana peels on the roads at a signal and fight with the “Kabadiwala” to pay us more for treating our trash. The cognitive dissonance stops us from being grateful for the services of the person who scours the roads every day and cleans it. We fail to see the triviality of our beliefs and subconsciously pass it down across generations.
Before we even start looking at the bigger picture of a cleaner society and better surroundings, it is essential to break the stigma. Each of us needs to let go of our existing taboos and have greater acceptance. It is essential to be inclusive of those who work with us on our mission to create a ‘Swachh Bharat’, instead of looking down upon them.
But, where do we begin when we don’t realize what part of it is a taboo? Here’s a useful checklist:
1. A smile goes a long way
We are very moved by Munna bhai’s “Jaadu ki Jhappi” for the hospital warden, but do we even acknowledge the person who takes out our trash? Or those who clean our desks and washrooms at work every day? By simply acknowledging their physical presence with a greeting and a smile, we can give them a sense of belonging. These simple gestures go a long way in breaking the silos at our workplace.
2. It is a profession and not a way of life
Picking waste is a profession and does not reflect a person’s essential worth. The waste-picker’s importance within the community ought to be acknowledged and communicated. We can do this by treating them with the compassion and respect that they deserve.
3. Empowerment of the waste-picker
It is easy for us to turn away from their torn shirts and their dirty hands, even if they are children. We helplessly stare, feel sad and then move on.
However, what we can do is stand up for their right to a safe work environment – this is possible by ensuring their access to gloves and appropriate equipment. For the waste-pickers to have regular access to hospitals and checkups for occupational health hazards. For them to belong to an organization that protects their rights and for them not to feel ‘left out’.
These moves will empower them by dignifying their contribution to the community.
4. They do not ‘drink away their money’.
Waste-pickers are often stigmatized for their tendency for substance abuse. They are accused of ‘drinking away their money’ instead of supporting their families. The do not do so out of choice – substance abuse is a serious illness that they fall prey to as a result of alienation and abuse they face. Several NGOs are working towards the cause of their rehabilitation. However, the society as an equal role to play to break through this stigma and aid the process.
5. Trash is their job.
Garbage segregation is NOT just the responsibility of the waste-picker. It begins at the level of every household. It is every individual’s responsibility to segregate waste and contribute to the recycling programme. We are all waste generators and segregating it suitably is our job.
These are the little social taboos that can be fought at an individual level. This is all that is required to change our outlook towards the waste-picking community and their profession. Garbage is not their problem, but a social issue, and each one of us needs to be a willing participant of the solution. If we change our perception as a generation, we add value to the heritage that we pass on to our posterity – along with a cleaner environment and a strong sense of civic-mindedness.
Come join us in fighting these taboos to build a friendlier nation for everybody!