The case of Guwahati’s waste workers
The proliferating urban space
Consumption and production from the country’s urban centres are posing immense threats to the surrounding ecosystem. Unplanned and haphazard growth has stepped up environmental risks, and the outcomes are being faced most starkly by the marginalised. Although living standards have significantly changed over decades, waste management methods have remained woefully inadequate.
Looking at Guwahati
Guwahati, the capital city of Assam and the gateway to the northeast, has been fast developing in recent years. As per Census 2011, it is home to 9,62,334 individuals. Many of these people have been driven to the city for better education and livelihood prospects. However, rapid population growth has not been met with adequate improvements in urban infrastructure and basic services provisioning. One of the major problems the city faces is improper disposal of municipal solid waste. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) is the local body responsible for governing, developing and maintaining the cleanliness of the city. With increase in industrial and economic activity, the quantum of hazardous organic and inorganic waste has grown, but its management has not been satisfactorily undertaken so far.
The way municipal waste is currently disposed of in Guwahati poses a great problem, leading to land pollution when dumped openly, water pollution if dumped in low lying areas, and air pollution if burnt. With the quantity of municipal solid waste generated rising over the years, the city needs to put in place stringent measures to adequately tackle this growing challenge.
Let us turn our attention now to the city’s landfill, which receives the bulk of the urban waste, and understand what happens here.
The city’s dumping ground
The West Boragaon dumpsite is the only waste disposal ground of the city. The site is within the Brahmaputra flood plain and is located at a distance of about 15 km from Guwahati City and 2 km from NH-37. This dumpsite has an area of about 108 bigha, provided on lease for 20 years (2008–2028). No proper disposal method has been seen in the West Boragaon dumpsite so far. The municipal trucks simply carry the waste to the dumpsite and dispose it without any processing, which has now become a health risk to the local people with the resultant pollution of the air and water.
The first line of impact: Living off the dumping ground
Most of the people residing on the periphery of the dumping ground in West Boragaon are informal workers who work on this landfill. Our primary survey discovered their main scope of work to be the segregation of waste, for which they receive meagre wages decided on a per-kilo rate. The workers are seasonal migrants from remote villages like Barpeta, Kharupetia, and mainly the Char areas of Assam. These are places which mostly get flooded for months, destroying their agricultural land and livelihood prospects in that particular period. Dumping sites emerge as opportunities of livelihood for these people. However, exploitation here knows no bounds. The workers tend to work for half a day in unhealthy conditions, without any protective gear. Their arms and legs are exposed to waste directly, and they breathe in toxic fumes for hours on end. Only a fraction of workers, who are engaged by the GMC, receive minimal protection.
There are around 100 to 150 households in this area. Their homes are not secure and are made of thatched roofs and walls made of torn banners and other temporary material. Each household has 4–5 people including children. The monthly rent for the households ranges from Rs 300–500. There is no secure water connection — about 30 households share one hand pump in the colony. There is open defecation as no sanitary latrines exist.
The children roam about these open dumping sites, exposing themselves to grave health risks. During puberty and pregnancy, girls and women bear the brunt of these unhygienic areas, Further, there is only one primary health care centre in the area which is only functional from 10–12 noon daily, and remains closed on Sundays. There is just one primary school at a distance of about 1.5km that determines the fate of the children, who mostly end us as dropouts and tend to work in the dumping site from a tender age.
During a health camp organised by YUVA, the doctors identified many people suffering from severe chronic stomach diseases and breathing issues. While travelling on the roads, many of us cannot bear the stench of anything unbearable we pass, even for a few seconds. Imagine lives near Boragaon, with future generations growing up inhaling toxic gases round-the-clock. We have observed that many of these people cannot avail basic services and schemes of the Government of Guwahati too, as they are registered voters of different districts. Therefore, these individuals carry the taboo of being invisible citizens we well. Lack of economic security in the villages leads the workers to such dire situations. It is the primary responsibility of the Government to provide protection and security to the informal workers enduring such hazardous daily. Regulations to prevent their exploitation are critical if we need to improve their situation and to allow them to lead lives of dignity.
Syeda Mehzebin Rahman, City Associate