In Focus

Risking life, livelihood even in COVID times

By Sanghamitra Moitra

For Chellamma Harijan, every day is fraught with risks. The COVID situation is only a recent development and the risks associated aren't restricted to contracting the virus, the Tamilian ragpicker risks contracting HIV, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and myriad other ailments by the sheer nature of her work.

RISKING LIFE: Ragpicker Chellamma risks infection as she segregates trash

And, with friend Jayalakshmi Shivkumar in tow, Chellamma has to sift through piles of garbage and waste discarded from offices in the Churchgate zone; discern the dry waste from the wet waste, keep the wet waste for the BMC and sell the dry waste to earn her living. And, even as the risks of contracting some disease by her their work without undertaking care of avoiding an injury or contracting a disease, it's that innocuous complaint from a resident of the area that causes immense loss to her.

And, the lockdown clamped upon the nation fetched only disaster for her and her lot, because work was relegated to sitting for hours on the side of the road waiting for offices to resume so they generate waste and then discard it for her to earn her living. While Chellamma managed to make ends meet with the doles offered to her by a few known 'memsaabs', Jayalakshmi had the Rs 1,500 deposited to her zero-balance account as part of the Centre's Jan Dhan Yojana as part of the Rs 500 payable to her for each month of work lost due to COVID.

Now, with the lockdown over and offices crawling back to normalcy, the ragpickers face another scourge. The BMC arrives with alacrity with a police van in tow to whisk away their carefully-segregated dry waste from their regular 'spot' despite the wailing and protests, and rush off. This is a regular occurrence considering it's 'illegal' to segregate the dry waste from the wet on the road and pile up their 'to-be-sold' dry waste till the kabadi shop opens.

HOPEFUL: Ragpicker Jayalakshmi stands at her regular spot in hope of collecting waste

So, if the kabadi shop opens up late, they run the risk of losing their dry waste to the BMC van that will arrive swiftly at the call of a neighbourhood citizen who simply cannot bear the sight of the ragpicker in his neighbourhood. Why, to segregate the dry waste from the wet is the onus of the housing society or the citizen who, as a rule, doesn't comply and instead dumps his entire garbage into one bin or bag for the ragpicker to work upon.

And, in the absence of a designated workplace, they do the work of segregation in a public place or near a building after seeking the patronage of 'a' seth or memsaab.  They run the risk of losing their day's earnings by selling the saleable 'bhangar' that will emanate from the garbage to the BMC van that will work strictly 'by the law'.

Chellamma Harijan and Jayalakshmi Shivkumar, originally Tamilians, have been living at a slum in Mahim, Mumbai with a hundred other of their lot and working in Churchgate area, outside Kishinchand Chellaram (KC) College and Apeejay House, for now thirty-five years in all, are more Mumbaikar than most others. They stayed back in Mumbai - their karmabhoomi - throughout the lockdown when most migrants had left for their villages: Waiting for work and normalcy. And yet continue to face apathy from the authorities and the risk of disease, death and loss of livelihood every day. COVID only worsened things for them.