New Delhi: “Quit your work, or move out of the house, you might bring coronavirus with you from work,” these were the words used by the landlord of Anjana Ghorke, a waste picker from Pune. 57-year-old Anjana, who serves over 350 homes in Hingne mala slum in Hadapsar, Pune where she collects waste and ensures its safe disposal, decided to choose her work over the home. She adds,
It was tough, but when you commit to a job, you cannot break that commitment just like that. I was willing to take the hit, but my neighbours and my landlord was worried about the ongoing coronavirus and thought I would bring back the virus from work at home and asked me to quit or move. I chose to move out.
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Anjana works as the waste picker from many years in SWaCH or the Solid Waste Collection and Handling Cooperative Society, a Pune-based organisation that was formed in the year 2017 in order to promote the habit of waste segregation among the people of Pune. This is not the story of Anjana alone, but more than 3500 waste pickers from SWaCH organisation who are fighting the coronavirus war from the frontline. These waste pickers go out every day, even in these trying times, simply to serve the society and manage the waste of Pune. The organisation is currently collecting door-to-door waste from over eight lakh properties – both residential, commercial and slums, across Pune.
Kishor Ram Bhondwe, a young father and a waste picker who battles coronavirus every day, adds,
Now more than ever, it is important to do our jobs properly as we are at war with this virus. We can defeat it only if we all act together; some of us by staying at home while some of us coming out and doing our best.
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Explaining what are the precautions he follows in this time of coronavirus, he said,
I know the importance of social distancing, hygiene and handwashing at this point of time. Whenever I go to collect waste from the areas assigned to me, I don’t come in contact with anyone. The residents have been asked to leave the waste outside their homes so that I can collect it without coming in contact with anyone. Secondly, we have been provided essentials like masks, gloves and sanitiser from our organisation SWaCH, which I make use of every now and then. Before even entering my house and meet and greet my family, I take the bath and wash all my clothes. Then sanitise myself thoroughly and only then interact with my baby and my wife.
Another SWaCH member, Supriya Bhadakwad, a 40-year-old waste collector together with her husband walks daily for about 3 kilometres so that they can serve around 250 households and help manage their waste properly, thereby ensuring the virus does not spread with the careless management of waste. She adds,
Because of lockdown, there was no auto or bus which we could take to go to our work, when the auto was there, we used to take that. On a daily basis, we were spending Rs 100 as there was no means to commute. But since the full lockdown, we have been walking daily. It is definitely tough, but at this time of the pandemic, maintaining good hygiene and waste practices is even more important. Imagine, if we don’t go and work then all the waste will come and pile on Pune’s roads. Who will take care of that? If that happens, the virus spread will increase definitely. So, it is best for us to work.
Explaining the challenges they face on a daily basis, Supriya Bhadakwad said, “We start collecting waste from 7 am in the morning, by 11 am, we have to collect each and every household’s waste and deposit at kachara ghar so that waste collecting truck can take the waste for safe disposal. But sometimes if we get late and miss the waste-collecting truck, then we both carry the waste back at home so that it is not carelessly lying on the streets and next morning we have to carry back from home again and deposit waste at the collection point.”
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Currently, SWaCH organisation is also running a donation drive wherein they are asking corporates and citizens to help provide with basic personal protective equipment for the waste pickers in the times like coronavirus. Suchismita Pai, Head of Outreach and Communication programme of SWaCH, explaining the drive said,
Coronavirus will not end anytime soon. We are in a need of the personal protective equipment like soaps, detergents, sanitisers, masks and gloves as it is just not about the safety of waste pickers but also about the safety of Pune city as these frontline warriors are out there handling the waste of the city. In recent months, we have got donations from organisations and citizens for these essential items and we hope in future also, we continue to get the same.
SWaCH members are actively contributing to keeping the city clean even during COVID-19. With an appeal to the fellow citizens of the city, Suchismita Pai signed off with a message,
We all are dealing with an unprecedented crisis, we don’t know when this will end, neither we have the treatment. At this crucial time, one thing, which we all know for sure is that the battle can be won only by following basic ethics of hygiene.
My request to all the fellow citizens, these waste pickers are defying all the odds, leaving their families behind, just so that waste in our city of Pune can be managed well, if we can handover and ensure household waste like medical diapers or sanitary pads are wrapped properly and dumped separately in a proper way with a red dot so that these waste pickers know what waste they are handling and sort it without opening it further. It would go a long way if everyone is sensitized to why essential services like waste picking matters and how they can ensure it is delivered smoothly.
These waste pickers are independent workers, without any health insurance, unlike other essential workers. Currently, at this time of the pandemic, their daily incomes are stuck, which mostly depends on user fees and scrap sales, but at this point, nothing is happening and everything is stuck, even their day-to-day income. At this point, we all need to come together and help these frontline workers.