Where scavengers are in life-or-death-race for survival
Ever been to Rafiq Nagar and Baba Nagar in Mumbai, India? If your answer is in the affirmative, then, you have Makoko, Oko Baba and Ijora Badiya, all slums on Lagos mainland on your mind. As it’s characteristic of those places, filth, stench, oddities of all sorts and, above all, a huge population of people that are suffering but smiling at the same time, as the legendary Fela would sing, are the major features here too. Despite obvious deprivations, you see excited children playing merrily on filthy pathways and narrow roads.
Like their Nigerian counterparts, these stinking, sticky slums are occupied by human scavengers who rummage refuse dumps situated on a large expanse of land where wastes from Mumbai usually end up. The place is called Deonar Waste Dumpsite.
To discourage people from settling in this highly hazardous location, the Indian Government prohibits people from living in or around Baba Nagar. Whoever violates that order does so at his or her own peril. Indeed, people who decide to reside there are basically at the mercy of demolition. Interestingly, the about 50,000 members of this community have a way of reviving their neighborhood after government bulldozers have rumbled and cleared their shanty homes. This, residents say, happens all the time, but has never quenched the resilience of the people to keep the community. These slums are in Mumbai, a city sitting pretty on the Forbes list of world fastest growing mega cities.
The Deonar Waste Ground
Deonar dumping ground, said to be Mumbai’s oldest dumpsite, started in 1927. It receives around 6000 metric tonnes of garbage dumped, fouling the environment with putrefying odour that usually emanates from a combination of decomposing refuse and feaces. The mountain of refuse is spread over an area of nearly 130 hectares. Human scavengers from the Rafiq and Baba Nagar slums, close to the dump, eke their living combing heaps of wastes in the dumps from sunrise to sunset, every day. They try to find scraps of plastic, glass, metal and anything worth recycling, which they sell to recyclers.
Home and livelihood
Mohammed Hassim lives with his wife, Mariyam, four children and mother in one of the shanty structures. They work at the dumpsite as rag pickers and have been living in the settlement for 13 years now. Left with no money and option for a decent accommodation, he says they were forced to move into the area by strangulating poverty. Speaking through an interpreter, Hassim said: “Before we came to this place, we were living in a settlement that was also illegal. After it was demolished, we decided to relocate to this place.” Seventeen percent of the rag materials they pick from the dumpsite are recycled. Earnings from this means of livelihood are not much and are usually determined by what they pick. The sorting business is not restricted to adults alone; children are also involved.
Access to clean water in this congested community is grossly limited. Many resort to storing water in plastic drums, which they buy for 60 rupees from tankers that come daily to sell water to them. This trend, according Dr. Ravindran Rathod, a medical doctor with the Niramaya Health Foundation, is detrimental to the already unhealthy life style of the people. The Niramaya Health Foundation is a non-profit organization that offers almost free healthcare to the Nagar slums dwellers and others through a mobile clinic. And for all the care, the patients pay a token of 10 rupees as administrative fee for whatever treatment they get.
Dr. Rathod says “through the mobile clinic, we provide them with medicines on Mondays and Thursdays. Many of the cases we have are usually respiratory especially lower tract and lung infections, skin diseases like scabies, and diarrhea, cholera and dysentery.”
The doctor also blames the pollution oozing from the dumpsites for the spiraling incidence of respiratory infections in the area.
Physical appearances of babies and children in this slum settlement are telltale signs of how under-fed they are. The situation is no better for many of their skinny looking parents. This condition is aggravated by health risks associated with their polluted and unhealthy environment. The state of the World’s Children Report by UNICEF noted that
health and inadequate nutrition leave children more vulnerable to the effects of environmental shocks. For children in the Nagar slum, the harsh reality of their surrounding and parents who can hardly do anything, are facts they have come to accept.
Speaking at a forum in Mumbai with fellows of the International Reporting Project, Palagummi Sainath, an award-winning journalist, noted, “with a decade growth of 9 percent, India has not delivered much to the kids.”
Meanwhile, the UNICEF report also shows that children in low-income urban areas are exposed to a high risk of respiratory diseases, especially where safe playgrounds are absent.
In the Nagar Slums, it is common sight to see children running around and playing on and with waste materials.
According to the UN report, unsafe water, poor sanitation and unhygienic conditions claim many lives each year. An estimated 1.2 million children die before the age of five from diarrhea. Poor urban areas where insufficient water supply and sanitation coverage combine with overcrowded conditions tend to maximize the possibility of faecal contamination.
Niramaya Inititiative in Mumbai
Enthusiastic children from the Nagar slums are eager to learn. They gather every day at the small office of the Niramaya Foundation in the area for some form of education. The classes are also avenues for awareness talks on health issues, especially those prevalent in the locality.
Despite the gender bias that exists in most parts of India, the Niramaya training is not gender sensitive as both boys and girls sit together to learn. Some of them are also being trained on how to use computers. But will they ever get the opportunity to put all they have learnt to use?
Like Mumbai, like Lagos
Some years back, the suffocating smell from the thick pal of smoke emanating from the Olusosun dumpsite in Lagos, would rudely welcome visitors to the shanty slum that was in a ‘valley’ next to the waste ground in Lagos. Like in Mumbai, they were also illegal, but powerful. Dirty and unstructured in appearance, the place was home and place of rest to hundreds of scavengers. The residents were determined Nigerians, out to make ends meet from the waste dump.
Today, the shanty territory has been overtaken by activities at the dumpsite as a result of efforts by the state’s waste management agency to transform the place into a well-engineered landfilled site.
Hauwa Momoh, the site manager explained that the scavengers’ village, which was cleared two years ago, was living on borrowed time. As waste increased at the dumpsite, they had to be evacuated, especially since it was unhealthy for them to be there. Heaps of refuse were pushed into the valley-like area and covered with clay soil. The agency, Hauwa pointed out, plans to turn the area into a green field. The initiative is also to reduce odour and help in structuring the gas capture project of the state government.
Lagos State, which is also on Forbes’ list of world fastest growing mega cities, generates about 9000 metric tonnes of waste daily. Like the saying goes, waste is not waste until it is wasted, dumpsites in Lagos ‘smell’ of money. It’s the reason why hundreds of people opt to make a living, picking discarded items from refuse dumps. In their own unhealthy way, experts say, these informal recycling agents play a vital role in promoting the waste-to-wealth culture of the state.
Ola Oresanya, the General Manager of the Lagos State Waste Management Authority, LAWMA, says scavenging is illegal, adding that the agency considers it a demeaning job. Consequently, it has tried severally to discourage the trend. This not withstanding, scavengers still find their way into the dumpsite. And because many of them make a lot money, and by so doing overcome the prevailing harsh economic situation in the country, the authorities have decided to look the other way. However, that may soon stop as the agency says the scavengers’ days at the dumpsite are limited because of its proactive efforts to encourage sorting at source. As a result of this, collected wastes would just go straight to the waste banks for recycling. The LAWMA boss says soon, there will be nothing to scavenge at the various dumpsites dotting the city.
A 43-year-old father of four, who simply identified himself as Akeem, is a scavenger at the Olusosun dumpsite in Lagos. He claims to hold a Masters Degree in Marketing from the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, in Ogun State. According to him, he took to scavenging after years of fruitless search for non-existent job.
“Actually, I was doing this before I gained admission into the university and even paid my fees from it,’ Akeem recalls. “It was when I was getting too many disappointments from job interviews that I decided to focus on the one that has never failed me.” He has been feeding his family and paying his bills for 14 years now with the average of N1000 he makes daily.
From picking waste, Akeem has moved a step higher, turning to a ‘waste contractor’, buying from those who do and selling to agents of companies and recycling facilities. Now, are you one of those who look down on scavengers? Akeem has a word for you. “It is unfair for society to look down on scavengers. They need to understand that we are trying to make an honest living. We are honest hardworking Nigerians.”
Still, he wouldn’t let go. He appraises the job and declares: “It is a dangerous job. It is one job you do with utmost care. If you don’t, you can sustain injuries that could turn fatal. You can contract deadly infections. So, when you go there to pick things, you have to be careful.”
Another scavenger, who also identifies himself simply as Modestus, concurs. Married with seven children, the 40-year-old scavenger says he has been doing the job for 12 years now and describes himself as a businessman. According to him, “you first start picking things from the waste, then graduate to buying from those who pick and sell to companies and those that do recycling.”
Eking a living from refuse dumps, attest Akeem and Modestus, has many health implications. While Modestus notes that, “the job is strenuous and gives serious body pain,” Akeem says the job predisposes practitioners to frequent bouts of malaria fever. “Although I’ve not had any injuries, I know there are health implications,” he says. “So, when I am weak or feel feverish I dash to the hospital for check-up.”
Meanwhile, an epidemiology survey carried out by the Lagos Waste Management Agency on human scavengers, shows that 10 percent of them suffer from Hepatitis B. This medical experts say could be due to their unhealthy exposure to all types of waste materials.
Modestus and Akeem reside with their families in small apartments in a neighbourhood far from the dumpsite. They both say it’s risky to expose their families to the hazards of the waste dump. And they avoid this like plague.
Ola Oresanya, LAWMA’s General Manager, points out that many of the scavengers will eventually be employed by the agency as resource managers at their recycling banks.
According to him, “we have conducted a RAPP report (a resettlement action plan programme) on the scavengers. Most of them have told us what they will do if they are not scavenging. We have started implementing them. Many of them are the resource managers we will employ at our resource banks. Some are going to go into sweeping of the roads, just as some will work at the new recycling industries that are opening up in the state.”
Akeem says the plans of the agency are good, considering the experience they have acquired over the years. His worry, however, is: what would happen to those who will not be selected?
Already, some have started working at some of the existing recycling centres, while a few have left the dumpsite and are taking advantage of the agency’s waste-to-wealth buy-back programme. It is an initiative in which people are paid for collecting disposed ‘pure water’ sachets and plastic bottles. Some of these classes of wastes never end up at the dumpsites but block drainage channels in the metropolis, aggravating flooding in the state.
Jennifer Igwe, an assistant manager of news with the NTA, reported this story on a trip to India with the International Reporting Project (IRP).