In Delhi, recycling has nothing to do with conscience. It is all about survival

The hundreds of children sifting through the stinking mountain of rubbish on the outskirts of the Indian capital represent the bottom of a bizarre hierarchical heap. Justin Huggler reports
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The Independent Online

A sad-eyed boy in a red jacket stands on top of a rotting mountain of rubbish, his feet slowly sinking into the filth. Nearby, and oblivious to the overpowering smell, Musida Sheikh, 14, is happily chatting with her friends as she too picks through the debris. Musida has been scavenging up here since she was eight years old. She has never been to school.

A sad-eyed boy in a red jacket stands on top of a rotting mountain of rubbish, his feet slowly sinking into the filth. Nearby, and oblivious to the overpowering smell, Musida Sheikh, 14, is happily chatting with her friends as she too picks through the debris. Musida has been scavenging up here since she was eight years old. She has never been to school.

Hundreds of Delhi children climb this rubbish mound every day. More than 1,000 people make their entire living scavenging here at the Ghazipur dump in down-at-heel north Delhi, where the city's refuse is consigned. They are recyclers of sorts. But, for them, recycling has nothing to do with environmentalism or the green movement - it is about daily survival.

Musida, for instance, is picking through the filth for plastic bottles. The fashionable guidebooks to India pontificate about the damage that plastic bottles are doing to India's environment, and urge tourists to refuse to buy them. But children like Musida depend on the bottles for their livelihood. They can sell them on at one rupee per kilogram - 1p.

The story of Delhi's rubbish is a tale of chaos, rule-bending and entrepren-eurial ingenuity among the plastic bottles, old clothes and food scraps.

As in many Western cities, the city's household waste is first separated and classified. The municipal rubbish-collectors carefully pile the biodegradable waste into green trucks, and everything that can be recycled into blue trucks, before the approving eyes of the citizens of wealthy south Delhi. Then the trucks, both blue and green, drive to exactly the same location in less salubrious north Delhi, and dump everything together in one great jumbled pile. All the careful separation is wasted as the rubbish is dumped in a mound which, over the years, has grown into a mountain.

But prior to that point the unofficial recyclers have been hard at work. Everything you throw away in Delhi, every scrap of paper, every sock riddled with holes, every piece of leftover food, is meticulously pored over and examined as the rubbish passes from hand to hand: by the private contractors who collect from your door; by the city rubbish-collectors who heap it into the trucks; by the drivers. And everyone who handles it takes anything they find of value, and either keeps it for themselves, or sells it to the rag merchants to be recycled.

It is hardly credible, when your rubbish reaches Ghazipur, that anything is left to scavenge at all. But it is. Ghazipur towers several hundred feet in the air, and stretches a mile or more across. It rots and oozes. Trails of slime seep down the sides. The vulture-like kites, ever-present scavengers over the city, circle overhead in a dense flock like Hitchcock's Birds. Stray dogs wander about, nosing in the filth for scraps.

When you try to climb onto it, you have to be wary of the places where the rubbish is like quicksand, and your leg slips up to the knee into the oozing filth. The stench is almost unbearable.

And at the top, the scene laid out before you is from the 19th century. Hundreds of children in bright and colourful rags pick over the surface of the mountain. Every few minutes or so they have to scurry out of the way as the bulldozers advance, trying to flatten the mountain.

It is a scene from Dickens' London, especially in the winter when thick fogs swirl in and the poor huddle around makeshift fires along countless roadsides. Like Dickens' London, Delhi is a city of the very rich and the very poor, where the former live in grand townhouses attended by retinues of servants, and the latter scavenge outside for whatever they can find. Ghazipur is the dust-heap of the Golden Dustman in Our Mutual Friend.

Delhi also has the rag-and-bottle shops of Bleak House. In fact, one stands at the end of the main road outside my house, run by Riyasat Ali, a 22-year-old who has inherited the family business. It is a small warehouse open at one end onto the street, filled with heaps of bottles, glass and plastic, and a large pair of scales to weigh it all in. The rag merchants like Mr Ali deal by the kilogram.

The room is also stacked to the rafters with 20-foot-high piles of old manuscripts and documents, dog-eared books and pages of accounting. It is impossible to say what valuable documents may lurk among these towers that teeter over Mr Ali's head. But it does not matter, as he can sell them to the recycling plant at seven rupees (8p) a kilogram.

And so I decided to follow what happens to the rubbish when it is thrown out of my house in the old Sufi suburb of Nizamuddin. In India, the rich do not have to put out their dustbins - and the rich includes Westerners. Rubbish is money, and someone comes round to collect your trash for you, usually in the early hours before you've even roused yourself out of bed.

Babu Choudry, the 18-year-old who collects our rubbish, comes on a cycle-cart, like a cycle-rickshaw for carrying rubbish instead of passengers. "I sort through the rubbish and separate paper, plastic, bottles, computer parts and iron," he says. "I sell those to the scrap-dealers, and only send the rest to the dump."

He works for Ramkrishnan and Mamta Balmaki, but they are known universally in the neighbourhood as Auntie and Uncle. They are responsible for keeping the street clean, and seeing that the rubbish is collected. It's not an official post, no one appointed them. They inherited it. But they get 4,000 rupees (£50) a month from the city council, plus 100 rupees (£1.20) a month from each house on the street.

"If we find something good in the rubbish, we keep it," says Mr Balmati. "Broken utensils, clothes, plastic products. But we never find anything valuable, only broken things."

The Balmatis are Dalits, members of the caste that was once considered Untouchable, though Untouchability is illegal in India now. Cleaning the streets and clearing the rubbish has always been work foisted on the Dalits, but Mr Balmati is not bitter.

"Look, I'm illiterate. For me, this is a good job," he says. "We are cleaning the country, we are doing our bit to keep India clean." When you ask if he will send his own children to school, he hesitates. "Let's see," he says. The truth is that he can ill afford to.

But the Balmatis are relatively high in the pecking order. The young men whom they employ to collect the rubbish are far lower down but, unlike the Balmatis, they are not Dalits. They are immigrants, from rural communities outside Delhi. The children on top of the mountain of rubbish at Ghazipur are the same. The lowliest tasks in rag-picking are so unappealing that even the Dalits, downtrodden for centuries, will not do them. Only immigrants will.

From my back door, the rubbish is taken by cycle-cart to the municipal bins in Nizamuddin. There, city employees are supposed to sort it out for the blue and green trucks but, since they are on a city wage, they sub-contract a lot of this work to local boys, and act as overseers. Again, the rubbish is sifted through meticulously, and anything that Mr Choudry or the Balmatis missed is fished out and sold to the scrap dealers.

It's at this point that it ends up in rag-and-bottle shops like Mr Ali's. Iron is the most valuable commodity for the rag-pickers, so when they find some they really celebrate. Dealers like Mr Ali will buy it off them for 11 rupees (13p) a kilo. He then sells it on at 14 rupees (17p) a kilo.

Computer parts are valuable for the specialists who recycle them, but the rag-pickers rarely find a single item in good enough condition to fetch a good price, and they don't know what is valuable and what isn't.

After all this, what is left of the rubbish goes to Ghazipur. Though none of them will admit it, many of the ragged children who scavenge through the rubbish at Ghazipur are Bangladeshis. No individual rag-picker will ever admit to it, but they'll all tell you that many of the others are. It's because they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, who've overstayed their visa or never had one, and this is the only work they can get.

Mamita Saha sits at the foot of the mountain sifting through the basket of plastic bottles that the children bring down from above. Her mind has gone. She has seven children, and their father is blind, so he cannot work to feed and clothe his family. The head of a dead animal - maybe a buffalo - is slowly rotting in the winter sun. It is the family's prize find amid the rubbish, though it's hard to see what they are going to do with it. It gives off a terrible stench, a ghoulish, red thing with empty eye sockets.

Two of the children, Hapijul, 9, and Anwar, who is only 6, are helping Ms Saha sift through the bottles. Neither has ever been to school. Three families work here, co-operating to gather plastic and paper to sell to recyclers. They are regularly harassed by the police, who demand bribes in return for not moving them on from here. "It's not fair. We are helping to clean Delhi, and they are exploiting us," says Ms Saha. "Everyone is doing it, the politicians, the bureaucrats. We cannot do anything."

Up on the mountainside, a team of men are humping loads of old clothes into a flat-bed truck. These men are rag-pickers, literally. When everything else has been exhausted, the paper, the plastic, even dead animals' heads, they recycle old rags. The tattered remnants of clothing are sold to factories where they are used as free fuel to keep the boilers going.

Poondev Ram and his team collect a ton of rags a day here. The stench from the rotting rubbish where they are working is awful. "What can we do? We have no other job," says Mr Ram. "We have to work to make a living."

He and the team of men have become friendly with the stray dogs that hang around the rubbish mountain. They have given them names: one is called Karo, and another Laloo, after Laloo Prasad Yadav, one of India's best-known politicians. He is from their home state of Bihar.

Mr Ram has been doing this job since he was 11 years old - now he is 44. "I came to Delhi to make money," he says. "I came with my father's permission." But he is adamant that his children will not follow in his footsteps. "My children are studying," he says. "I want my children to be educated and have a better job."

Because of men like Mr Ram, India has a recycling record that should be the envy of the West. Nothing is casually thrown away here. Nothing goes to waste, because the people simply can't afford it. But no one wants to do the dirty job of picking through the filth to find what can be recycled.

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