Posted in Environment

rich man’s trash is poor man’s treasure.

Meditate on this. Marinate the words at the bottom of your heart to defreeze and thaw and later consume with loads of thought and consideration. Think ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ Think ‘Sillu Karuppatti.’ Think scores of, thousands and thousands of ragpicker kids …

Netflix documentary featuring Bangladesh ragpicking little boys and girls ‘Children in Need’ (parts 1 & 2) (Tales by Light) may be the latest to expose to the world the disturbing reality humanity tries to shrug off and move on. Filmed for UNICEF by Simon Lister with goodwill ambassador Orlando Bloom, scouting the inhospitable terrain with clogged drains and damp slithery surface, this is one episode that moved me to the core. Childhood snatched from a vulnerable age, with innocence lost and exposed to hazardous chemicals and drugs, how the children endure their harsh lives with a smile on their lips as only kids can, is heart-tugging. The title for this post is picked from the series.

Whether it is this Dhaka story or the Tamil flick by Samudrakani, they had onething in common for us to dwell upon: rich people’s trash becomes poor folks’ treasure, how sad. Even a gaudy little trinket with its lacklustre can gain the attention of a skimpily clothed urchin, combing his/her way through the debris. For the brat, this is like a trophy to cherish. The smart ones among them know what to look for: recyclable toxic stuff. Handling the rubbish with bare ungloved hands, the children are unaware what they are up against. This is why perhaps we the consumerist society have to exercise caution as responsible citizens and dispose wastes with care, with due consideration to the young ragpickers. Invariably underage kids from poverty stricken families end up near the garbage mounds looking for a livelihood for subsistence. The pain of having tender hands sifting through rotten garbage and medical refuses sans safety aprons or boots is highly unsettling. When the school is skipped, we already have a community problem brewing in our hands. Unemployment and crimes are only the following inevitable steps.

We have a massive dumping yard near Velachery in Chennai. In all probability, the wetlands of the area have been taken over for the complex civic responsibility of waste disposal. Only solace is that, my hometown seems to have better organized dumping grounds than the ones in Bangladeshi capital. Of course, there is a difference between a filmy angle and a documentary exposing acid truths.

The Pallikkaranai Velachery marshland is now transformed into an alarming size garbage dump for the metropolitan city. This is no more a single waste disposal problem for the twenty million strong denizens of Chennai. Now we have an environmental issue to tackle. The wastes dumping is driving out the winged visitors including exotic species that had made it a sanctuary for centuries for their breeding season. The Velachery lake is shrinking, and the ground water has to get toxic progressively.

Is there a better way we can handle this mega socio-economic issue. I wonder what my successive state governments have been doing. Sleeping over the matter?

  • Is it possible to move the Perungudi and Pallikkaranai/Velachery dumping yards to somewhere not closer to any waterbody or residential colony.
  • Details of landfills allocated in the city for the purpose.
  • Landfills identified for future use. Long term planning and management of waste disposals.
  • How about restoring the Pallikkaranai marshlands and the Velachery lake to former pristine conditions.
  • Can ragpicking kids be kept out of the garbage sites. Strict vigil mandatory. How can illegal child labour function within government controlled areas.
  • Rehabilitation programs for kids rescued from garbage dumps including schooling and vocational training.
  • There must be a mechanism in place to sort the toxic wastes that are not recyclable from the organic piles. Apparently the non-decomposable are dumped into landfills earmarked for the purpose. How functional is the working system.
  • Is the incineration of bio medical wastes prompt.
  • Is bio mining undertaken in Chennai dumping yards
  • Waste management is a science. It ensures air quality for city residents.
  • Data on energy sourced from the wastes by our state government.
  • Is there any designated power plant.
  • Stats for revenue inflow from garbage dumping yards.
  • Ruled out in scope from this blog post: sewerage treatment

It brings to my memory a little boy under ten years who used to come to our house every week for collecting plastics and bottles and newspapers when I was in school. Not much of plastics then. In fact none at all. Even Aavin milk was delivered in bottles. Anyone opened the aluminium foil top to lick the butter as I did? The ragpicker boy’s skin used to be duskiest with a shade of gleaming blue but he used to have such sharp features. My grandma never took money from him. My dearest old lady. I am talking of a time in late 70s and early 80s. One week instead of this boy with sparkling eyes, a very old woman draped in dirty torn cotton sari and blouseless, came for collection of disposables from us. When we asked her about the boy she said, he was her grandson and that he had died from a snake bite a few days earlier, but life had to go on. There was no time to mourn. The woman kept coming back for years. Never did we take a single paisa from her in exchange but all our neighbours did robust business with her. She went door to door with her jute sack one day of the week. May be it was wednesday I am not sure. She must have been over eighty then. I am suddenly reminded of this poorest family. The boy had no parents. The grandmother was his sole custodian. With the boy gone and forced to work, the oldie used to halt in my house steps for good length of time for water and rest. I think my granny who lost my mom, her daughter, found some kinship with her on some basis. Never did the old woman and grandson collect garbage from bins. They had personalized it long back. I didn’t know how the boy carried loose change but the old woman carried it in her ‘surukku pai.’ She paid for the old newspapers and bottles by weight, the weighing scales for which which she carried on her head.

Even now we have waste collectors in the city doing rounds in our streets. But they can’t get slicker. Use a mic to announce to you their presence. Pedal around in a ‘meenbody’ tricycle. They must be making decent living by the look of them. It is however from my grandma I learnt never to make money from wastes. Or barter or bargain with streetside vendors or small sellers. My househelp periodically clears my extras. I have never so far asked her how she disposes them. Or for what rate. A headache is off for me. This is mutually beneficial. Keeps my house clean of unwanted junk.

It is only the organic wastes mostly that I throw away in garbage bins. Using liners in the waste bins that are organic and decomposable as well. Very conscious of what I dispose. Some friends do make compost with waste. As I shuttle between two cities mostly, I have no fixed plan for organic disposal as such.

Indians still do not distinguish between organic wastes and toxic wastes. My toxic wastes are lumped in a box to be disposed every week, as I said, by my househelp. Recyclable are separated.

There are small merchants I believe in some streets where they take non-disposable toxic wastes such as computer monitor, old tvs etc although I cannot understand their motive.

Vendors in India do minimize the waste issues to a considerable level in my opinion. At micro stage, it is taken care of. India could be a leading country when it comes to recycling the old and used toxic plastics. Glaring example is exchange of old saris for recycled plastic buckets from streetside hawkers! Most housewives in India indulge in this luxury!

It is only the material that sifts out of vendor hands that ends up in garbage yards.

Chennai corporation has privatized sanitary works in the city. Garbage collection and disposal are far better in last ten years or so.

Swachch Bharat was a roaring success until Covid struck. Now garbage is getting heaped in our streets once again.

It is not the case with India alone. By and large most of Asia is like us. We do not treat our wastes the way they must be.

Thankfully many of us back home are moving to organic decomposable carry bags and reusable cutlery and cookware and serving sets once again. This can make a world of difference to Mother Earth, how much ever small step that could be.

Pest control too is organic these days. My request to everyone to go for such a pack, in case you opt for the treatment at your place.

When I see little boys and girls on barefoot climbing over mounds of garbage in dumping yards even in reels, I wish this comes to an end soon. The precious kids may be the only breadwinners for their families at times, yet this cannot just be the way. It has to be stopped forthwith. I am shocked that the human rights activists have not done anything in their capacity to better their plight or remove these little hands from handling piles of toxic rubbish. Is there no controlling authority at all out there. What happens to child labour laws. No scribe going for cover story. No tv crew to film headlines or breaking news. No minister to visit and tweet later at least for publicity stunt…


I once gave my used laptop (three years old) to someone who needed it. I was surprised to learn that last year, over five years since I gave it up, it is still working but has to be plugged in always as battery has died. The power of giving your bit to the needy. This small snippet of news really warmed my heart. What we so carelessly dispose off is such a cherished treasure to so many, many. Now all our laptops we service, restore and give someone who may need them after deleting data completely.

Mobile phones with lithium batteries etc., need not have to be disposed off. How many phones after all would we own in a lifetime. I think our back lockers or our wardrobes can still hold a cache of them. Until humanity devises a methodology to dispose off them in a nontoxic manner or finds a way to recycle them, let us safekeep our used phones, laptops etc without tossing them out to fill one more landfill.

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