India’s Garbage-picking Jobs Made Worse by Extreme Heat

05:01 July 4, 2024

India’s Garbage-picking Jobs Made Worse by Extreme Heat

Near Jammu, India, the smell of burning garbage, or waste material, spreads out for kilometers across the city. The site where the garbage is burned holds a mix of plastic, industrial, and medical waste. Experts say the air is dangerous to breathe.

The extremely high summer temperatures add to the danger.

But a small number of people work at the site through the smoke and intense heat. They search the garbage before it goes into the fire. They collect anything that might be sellable.

They earn at most four dollars a day.

“If we don’t do this, we don’t get any food to eat,” said 65-year-old Usmaan Shekh. “We try to take a break for a few minutes when it gets too hot, but mostly we just continue till we can’t.”

Shekh and his family are among as many as four million garbage pickers around India. The job is dangerous, and increasing summer heat brings even greater risk to the workers. In Jammu, a northern city, temperatures this summer have climbed above 43 degrees Celsius often.

As waste breaks down, it creates heat. Summer temperatures intensify this heating. As a result, the landfill releases more gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. These gases are dangerous to breathe. Experts say the summer landfill fires can burn for days.

India’s federal government estimates the country produces about 56 million metric tons of waste each year.

A 2016 law requires dangerous material to be separated from landfills. But enforcement of the law has been weak. This adds to the risk the landfill workers face.

Bharati Chaturvedi is founder of the New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. She has worked with waste pickers for more than 20 years. She noted that the workers already face health risks from direct contact with the waste. The extreme heat is an additional danger.

“It’s been a terrible, terrible, terrible year,” she said. “They already expect to suffer from the heat and that gives them a lot of anxiety, because they don’t know if they’ll make it, if they’ll survive it.”

Heatstroke, cardiovascular diseases and chronic kidney diseases are some of the risks from working outdoors during high heat.

Ruksana Begum is a 41-year-old waste picker at the Bhalswa landfill in the city of New Delhi. She said some waste pickers are working less because of the heat. As a result, they only have enough money for one meal a day.

“They are trying to avoid work because of the heat since if they go to work, they end up spending more at the hospital than for their food,” Begum said.

Chaturvedi said it is necessary to give the workers water, shade, or a cooled building to use near the landfill. She said they should be urged to work less when the temperatures are high. And she said medical care must be available to the workers when they need it.

Geeta Devi is a 55-year-old garbage picker. She also works at the Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi. Devi says when the heat makes her dizzy, she takes shelter. Sometimes, someone gives her water or food. But she has no choice about working at the garbage site. She earns about two dollars a day. That’s what she needs to feed her children.

“It is difficult to do my job because of the heat. But I have no other job,” she said.

I’m Andrew Smith.

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