Kantamma is up for work every morning before the sun. She treads barefoot the 12-km distance from home to her workplace, geared with a plastic sack and a long pointed metal rod. She stops on her way at every street corner, rummaging the piles of garbage for something worthwhile.
The woman is a rag picker at the Perungudi dumping yard. Like most of her workmates, she picks waste all the way to the yard. “There is enough garbage on the streets and the stuff I pick up would end up there anyway,” she says.
Rag pickers know it is easier to deal with garbage in small amounts than in mountainous piles. They segregate waste wherever they find it and sell them, reducing the load of waste reaching the yard. Once in the yard, the garbage is all mixed up and segregating them is a tough job.
The 60-year-old Kantamma, for one, only picks up plastic and paper. She says her vision is failing and she can no longer venture deep into the dump. But nonetheless she visits the yard as the plastic scrap dealer in Perungudi is familiar. He helps her with credit in times of need.
In the city, there are thousands of men, women and children who pick waste from streets or dumping yards or both. It is an informal trade and the more they pick the better they earn.
They know how to put waste to use. At a rag picker’s colony in Indira Nagar, Adyar, nearly everything they use is made from scrap collected the streets. When construction was on at the Tidel Park, some of them said they found some broken tiles near the site with which they patched up the floors of their dwelling units.
Unfortunately, most rag pickers are bonded to the scrap dealer to whom they regularly sell. Marimuthu (12) is one such rag picker in the Kodungaiyur dumping yard. The boy migrated from Athipattu with his parents a few years ago. They get an advance of Rs.1,000 from a nearby scrap-dealer and sell him whatever they manage to lay their hands on. Munusamy, who initiated the family into the trade, says, “The dump yard is our home, the waste is bread and butter.”
He points to a little boy who is scraping the charred surface of the yard. His mother had set heaps of discarded wires on fire a while ago. The boy was pulling out thin strings of copper from it. “How much will it fetch,” Munusamy asks. The boy replies with a smile, “I am sure I’ll get Rs. 15.”
Munusamy says, in Kodungaiyur, rag pickers fight among each other for metal scrap like dogs over a piece of meat. He picks up a medicine bottle, removes the rim at its neck and says, “This is aluminium … fetches Rs.90 a kg.”
In Kodungaiyur, he says rag pickers have managed to pull out gold ornaments and silverwares sometimes. “You never know when someone would get lucky,” he says, but slowly adds: “But everything depends on the scrap dealer giving a good price. Once, a girl found a fat gold chain and the dealer only paid her Rs.5,000. Someone told me that he later made a fortune out of it.”
But rag pickers like him, who turn rag into riches for others, themselves remain poor.
(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Jun 01, 2008)