On 18 April, 32-year-old Shivagami, who had been a waste-picker since her childhood, started feeling feverish. Three days later, she tested positive for covid-19. The local government hospital did not have a bed but she was admitted to the Shridevi Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Hospital in Tumakuru, Karnataka, where she lived with her husband, Mari. After nearly two weeks’ treatment, Shivagami was well enough to go home. But on 4 May she had breathing trouble again and was put on a ventilator. Later that night, Shivagami died—an untimely end to a life spent delivering an essential service to society, which barely notices workers like her.
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By the first week of May, when Hasiru Dala ( “Green Brigade” in Kannada), a Bengaluru-headquartered not-for-profit that works towards improving the lives of waste-pickers in parts of southern India, posted the news of Shivagami’s death on social media, at least three other waste-pickers had lost their lives to the second wave of covid-19. Tumakuru and Bengaluru alone had 34 cases in the community at the time and it was feared that the disease might spread rapidly through the congested slums where waste-pickers live. At the peak of the second wave, there were 100-120 cases in the community in Bengaluru.
“Last year, as the pandemic broke out, our main challenge was to prevent hunger and malnutrition—the spread of the disease wasn’t as severe,” says Nalini Shekar, who co-founded Hasiru Dala in 2011. After a decade of tireless campaigning, a sizeable number of the 35,000-odd waste-pickers who work in Bengaluru now have occupational identity cards and a predictable income, depending on the size of the ward they service, from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. At present, some 39,000 households in the city segregate waste at source; all cities in Karnataka are supposed to collect wet and dry waste separately.
“Hasiru Dala has created entrepreneurs from within the community to run waste segregation units,” Shekar says. It helped them become financially literate. Many waste-pickers, most of them women, are less afraid now to go out early in the morning, when the streets are empty, to do their work. “The ID cards have given them a sense of security,” Shekar adds. “We have also brought down the rate of child labour in the community.”
In 2015, Hasiru Dala Innovations Pvt. Ltd, an offshoot of the NGO, was founded as a “for-purpose, not-for-loss” enterprise under the leadership of Shekar’s husband, Shekar Prabhakar. “The waste-pickers employed by the company service 450 bulk waste generators, including all of Electronic City (the key IT hub), across Bengaluru,” says Prabhakar, company co-founder and CEO.
Despite citizen activism in the area of waste management, and the polluter-pays principle of operation (where waste generators pay for the disposal), there is still an “out of sight, out of mind attitude” among urbanites, adds Prabhakar. There isn’t enough concern for the people who keep towns and cities clean. Most waste-pickers in Bengaluru, a focus area for Hasiru Dala, are informally employed in the neighbourhoods they clean, deprived of benefits and subsidies from the government. For migrant workers—people from as far as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Assam, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh end up working as waste-pickers in Bengaluru—the challenges are harder. Apart from the linguistic barrier, they are not eligible for basic ration kits without Aadhaar cards, which many don’t have.
“Most of them earn and eat each day—they don’t have access to a public distribution system,” says Shekar. As the pandemic put a strain on their income, finding means of sustenance became a key concern. “Women in the community began to lose a lot of weight because they fed their families whatever food they could get,” Shekar says.
With primary health centres being turned into covid-testing units, the community was hesitant to visit these for treatment of non-covid diseases. They relied, instead, on quacks and local pharmacies. As the second wave of infections rose, so did the fear of getting tested—and getting a positive result. “We organised and ran a community care centre with the help of St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru,” Shekar says. A large hall there was converted into a covid-19 care unit, with the space partitioned for men and women. An entire family could stay together if they tested positive. While running this clinic with generous help from citizens via crowdfunding, Hasiru Dala took it upon itself to raise awareness of the disease and tackle the hesitancy related to testing.
“We put more than 150 people through a leadership training programme via digital meetings,” says Shekar. There weren’t enough smartphones to go around but three or four people would come together and join using one device. Last year, college-going children of waste-pickers were also made aware of the protocols of monitoring basic healthcare—reading oximeters, tracking temperatures, keeping a tab on the diabetics, providing palliative care, and so on. A mobile library was set up for the children, whose schools were suspended; limited access to smart tech was circumvented with smarter thinking. “Children whose families had basic feature phones could join in storytelling sessions through a voice call instead of video ones,” says Shekar.
Until the virulence of the second wave was brought under control, Shekar and her colleagues regularly sent out recorded WhatsApp voice and video messages as well, urging the community to step up if anyone felt ill. Committees were formed to identity families in dire need of economic intervention—scholarships and hostels for young children, immediate relief for hospital bills, widow pensions, trusts for orphans when they turn 18 are currently being organised by Hasiru Dala through fund-raisers. “We have laid the foundations for an ecosystem for waste-pickers to live with dignity,” says Shekar. “But we need to achieve much more.”
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