The Topsia Canal Road of south Calcutta is home to 4,000 ragpickers. Forty seven-year-old Ajmeri Khatun is not one of them anymore, strictly speaking. About 10 years ago, she purchased her first rickshaw and today she owns a fleet of 11. But whenever she has some time on her hands she likes to sort waste.
The job of a ragpicker is to sort dry waste, the kind that can be recycled — plastic bottles of shampoo or detergent, glass bottles, tin containers, plastic caps. Ragpickers also look for electrical waste such as regulators of fans, metal changeover switches. “Copper, brass, iron, steel, they all fetch good money. Sometimes we even find silver,” says Ajmeri. Once sorted, these are sold to dealers or the kabadiwallah.
As Ajmeri and I take a walk along Canal Road, we spot some shanties with waste materials heaped in front of them. Some women are sitting on the road with their day’s collection spread out; they are segregating different kinds of waste. Ajmeri explains, “Ragpickers keep things in store for weeks. Only when they collect a biggish heap, do they sell it. Or else there is no money in it.” But before that they have to rummage through a lot of rubbish. She points to the hands and feet of these women, soiled with dirt, their skin rough and coarse from the day’s work.
Ajmeri is not a jaat kachrawali; her father was a rickshaw puller. Once she turned 14, he married her off. She says, “My husband was not employed, but his family owned agricultural land in south Bengal. My parents thought that would guarantee me a good life.” But in time Ajmeri got fed up of her husband’s joblessness. “He would do nothing the whole day. Sometimes he would be out flying kites, sometimes he would lay traps to catch birds, which he would sell at a price. I refused to stay in the village and asked my parents to bring me back to Calcutta,” says Ajmeri.
Back in Calcutta, at first, Ajmeri did not know what to do for a living. She says, “I used to sit at home all day. It was from my neighbours that I got to know that ragpicking could fetch me Rs 80 to Rs 100 a day. It was quite a lot of money in the 1990s.”
When she broached the topic to her family, no one was pleased. “But I was not ashamed of picking up waste,” says Ajmeri, her expression hardening at the memory. It fetched her money enough to pay for her daily expenses and according to her, that is all that mattered.
She continues with a straight face, bereft of any emotions, “The life of a ragpicker is not easy; that dirt will wash but not people’s impression of you. The men are regarded as thieves. And women ragpickers are twice as much despised,” she adds, all the while studying my expression. She keeps talking about how ragpickers get to work very early, often within hours of midnight; she talks about the stiff competition; the suspicious gaze of cops; the stray dogs breaking into a chase; and of course, the unwanted advances.
She narrates an incident wherein a local goon had once attacked her friend. Shehnaz had gone out all by herself one morning. A man whom she had seen earlier in the neighbourhood had followed her with the intention of snatching her silver bangles. There was a tussle and the goon slashed her cheek with a knife.
Says Ajmeri, “Shehnaz is brave girl. She went to the Beniapukur police station [in central Calcutta] bleeding and got her complaint registered. When she came back and told us about the attack, all the ragpickers went to the police station, and gheraoed it until the culprit was arrested and punished.”
She talks about seasonsal challenges too. “In the monsoon months, everything we collect is wet and the kabadiwallah gives us half the money because of this. Also, the waste is far more messier,” she says.
“You have to ignore the smell and the sight of the dirt. You have to put your hand into it to fish out something worthwhile. You have to wade through the rubbish. Nails have pricked my feet through my chappals so many times, I have lost count. Broken glass, rotten tin, sharp objects, there are so many things you have to be careful of,” she goes on.
Ajmeri Khatun with her son and some of the rickshaws she has acquired over the yearsImage: Moumita Chaudhuri
Ajmeri has given up ragpicking for some years now. “But it is from the money that I earned as a ragpicker that I have built myself a pucca house,” she says pointing to the room where we are sitting. The room is painted a deep green. It has a double bed, an almirah neatly covered with blue synthetic curtains, a brand new refrigerator, a showcase stacked with crockery and shelves lining the walls, laden with aluminium utensils. There is a small kitchen adjoining this room and two more stand-alone rooms that she has built for her children.
It was in 2006 that Ajmeri came to know of the NGO, Tiljala Society for Human and Educational Development, that works towards improving the lives of ragpickers. Heera Ghosh, who works for the NGO, talks about how ragpickers are being phased out. She points out how the civic body has installed compactor machines in almost every place. Also, there are vans that collect domestic waste from households in the mornings. “So the ragpickers do not get to collect the waste at all, however early they might start,” she adds.
The NGO gave Ajmeri a generous grant. Says she, “I used the first instalment to buy a second-hand rickshaw. After three months, when I got the rest of the grant, I spent it to repair the rickshaw, which was in a poor condition.”
In between, Ajmeri lost her husband. He had been working as a daily wage labourer since they moved to Calcutta, but now with him gone Ajmeri says she felt overwhelmed at the prospect of bringing up four children all by herself. “I put the rickshaw on rent and continued to ragpick,” she says.
In 2009, she bought another rickshaw, and thereafter she bought eight more. “I had also opened a bank account and saved some money. I availed every loan that came my way. I am still paying some of them,” she says chirpily.
Today, she has married off two daughters. Her youngest has read up to Class IX. She now gives tuitions to children and attends Urdu classes herself at the local madrasah. “I have also bought a brand new rickshaw three months ago for my son,” she says and then laughingly adds, “My son did not want to pull a rickshaw. He said it was below his dignity but I told him that no work is low or mean as long as it gives you a respectable living.”
She talks about the changes in the ragpickers’ working conditions. “Now ragpickers have identity cards issued by the Rag Pickers Association of India.” Ajmeri along with 11 other women have started a self-help group. “We are saving Rs 100 per member every month and creating a fund which can be used to generate loans to any member who needs the money. That way, we will not have to depend on moneylenders or banks, we would also earn interest, and our kitty would become stronger and stronger,” she says with a sparkle in her eyes.
Ajmeri has given up ragpicking, but she has not given up working. Currently she works as a domestic help. She tells me how she collects plastic shampoo bottles and other waste from the family she is employed with. She says, “Seeing me recycle things, my employers too have started to recycle products of late, instead of throwing them hither and thither.”