The Unsung Heroes of
Waste Management

When you’re done with it, where does it go? Some of it gets recycled thanks to the kabadiwala.

Akansha Sinha meets the men who keep the city clean. 

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Kabadiwalas are destitute migrants, finding new ways to fight plastic waste. | Shot by Akansha Sinha, Edited by Yatharth Golchha

It's often said, one man's trash is another's treasure. In our cities, you might want to rewrite that old saying to: One man’s trash is another man’s livelihood. Because the kabadiwala will tell you there is no treasure here, but enough to get by and to dream of one’s children doing another job.
Meet Lakhan Atolely, who looks for empty bottles, cans, and cartons in the rubbish heaps. His call is familiar in middle-class areas:  “Raddi de do, kabadi de do” (‘Bring out your scrap’) as he wanders past, waiting for a window to open or someone to beckon him to come upstairs and carry away what is no longer wanted. This can be anything from old newspapers to empty bottles to a perambulator that is no longer needed and quite probably no longer working either.

Atoley brought his family with him to Indore, seeking a better life for himself and his family. In the village, he would have ended up a bonded labourer so burdened was he by debt. He could not find a job so he used what little money he had left to hire a cart and to start going on rounds, asking people to bring out their scrap so that he might buy it.  

Atoley and his tribe are to be found in every small town and large city. There are stories about them. For instance, one of the great stories I have heard is that Father Heras sj of St Xavier’s College found the first book ever printed in India on a kabaadiwaala’s cart. 

However most of the other things that people hand over are the unwanted, the rusted, the worn out things that they once dreamed of, that they once saved money to buy. The kabadiwalas leverage the city's existing informal waste infrastructure in the collection and processing of post-consumer waste.

Atoley tries to see the bright side. He sees himself as an entrepreneur, saying that he has always had the urge to do something of his own.  He says he earns enough to feed his family. What bothers him is that he is unable to offer a good education to his kids. 

He says, “At times people look down at me as a scavenger, but discrimination is better than poverty so I just keep on doing what I do. I had a vision as a child: to do something for myself on my own. This is what I am doing. And I think it helps me, it helps my family and it helps society. So I don’t care about what people think.”

Sound On

"Raddi de do, kabadi de do"  | Shot by Yatharth Golchha

This informal sector toils around in extreme weather conditions with low and fluctuating incomes, difficult working conditions, lack of legal protection, numerous legal and physical risks, and often low social standing.  Also, they are outside the protective labour law framework with no clear markers against which to push for gains.

They face acute humiliation and abuse on the streets be it from the common man or from the cops. They work without any fixed salary or dignity in dire conditions. They are exposed to harmful substances, poor wages, and lack of basic civic amenities in search of two meals a day. Atoley says that he buys what people don’t want but on days when no one seems to be selling, he is not above rummaging through rubbage heaps to collect tin cans which can be sold for their metal value. Most of the days he covers more than 7-8 kilometres in his daily route. 

Kabadiwalas are generally migrants, cracking new ways to fight plastic waste.

"Around five thousand people from my hometown came to Indore to collect waste. My wife came here a year earlier with a friend. Today, she works as a domestic helper, while I collect scrap in the society. This is a free job, without limits on the time you can work or the areas you can visit," says Mohammad Azam, a 42-year-old kabadiwala.  

However, as cities grow and develop, the elites move into high-rise buildings, which have their own rules and regulations about who may or may not enter. But kabadiwalas have their ways around that. Some hook up with the guards, some make friends with the servants who will bring them the things their employers want taken away quick. However, Mohammed Azam recalls that about five years ago, there were five times the number of waste collectors like him on the streets, but the number has fallen dramatically.

Looking ahead, the future looks uncertain. | Shot by Akansha Sinha, Edited by Yatharth Golchha

India being a land of myriad festivals calls for our demand in the society as people start cleaning their houses, making festive arrangements, and clean up the house. The kabadiwalas know that the Goddess will not visit if the house is not in good tick and so they turn up when old newspapers, telephone directories, books, toys, appliances, basically all tangible commodities are turned out of doors. 

"I can earn about 400 to 500 bucks from the load I sell; if I'm lucky, I can make up to 600 Rs a day," Mohammad Azam said. But it isn’t easy money. “Sweating the whole day, we go from one door to the other. On a good day, I might make some money and even find something like a toy or a doll which might make my kids happy.”

He knows that there are certain other events that will bring out the scrap. “I look for people decorating their homes. They will get rid of things and often they want to move them quickly gto make place for the new stuff that is on its way. Then that new stuff will have packaging material, lots of it and they will need that taken away.”

Ravi Arihar tells a story that stakes in stoicism and optimism in equal measure. The work takes a toll, for him, it means his feet end up “cut and scabbed, though I wear shoes but what good are shoes after a while? My whole body keeps aching even after walking miles and sometimes we have to return home empty handed”. 

He knows a little of what is making this happen. “People now put their old clothes and things on the Internet,” he says. There are also online kabadiwalas although they have had mixed success because their rates are not competitive. 

The pandemic was tough as people hunkered down and tried not to spend too much money. And the lockdown meant that they were not welcome anywhere. But the unsung heroes of waste management will be back and that familiar cry will resound. 

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