No place to call home, no identity

Hidden behind by lanes of Batla House and Okhla Head is the-hard-to-locate and-reach-Pehlwan Chowk, a place most likely non-existent on the map of Delhi. The long trek to the interiors and the overwhelming stench benumbs the olfactory senses.

Dystopia is what comes to mind when you see this garbage dump of 4-6 km square submerged in colourful small and large rags and every conceivable refuse. By the looks of it, it is yet another dump yard on government land.

About 200 labourers are assorting waste items that they have collected through the day. Hundred of these workers are children, around the age of ten, and the rest are mostly their parents. Collecting waste from around the city is a kind of family enterprise for them, but the ‘owner of the enterprise’ is invisible in the story.

Intrigued by the prof­­iciency of these workers as mere waste pickers, Metrolife tried to delve into their lives and stories.

Elma from Assam, says, “We start picking up garbage from around four in the
morning till about eight, then we bring it here. We go to all parts of the city and have
separate districts allotted to us. My district is Batla House and Okhla Head.”

Reluctant to talk, Elma says she is “not allowed to speak to anyone”. When asked who said so, she just kept quiet despite consistent probing.

Noorjahan on the other hand said she cannot say or do anything without her husband’s permission. “We divide these wastes among everyone and separate the waste according to their use.”

The labourers follow the principle of ‘recycling and reuse’. Their earning is dir­­-
ectly proportional to the items they are able to recycle from the heaps of wastes they scour.

Noorjahan has lived in that tent for the past 10 years. She says, “I work on recycling
paper items. My brother works with the metal wastes,” she adds. Everyone here has ‘duties’ assigned by someone. Some deal with paper, some with polythene, metal, plastic, reusable, non-reusable, degradable and non-biodegradable items. Each item is carefully sorted and recycled.

Says Noorjahan, “We have to pay Rs 15,000 for three tents. While all put together we earn Rs 5,000 per month. We don’t get drinking water here, so every day we buy a drum of water for Rs 20.” None of the labourers have election or ration cards.

When Noorjahan and her husband Nurmama were asked who had allotted them this job, who was the owner of the property, who takes rent, they, like Elma, chose

to remain mum. The only thing the workers would reveal was that they were from Assam. Mostly people prompted each other to keep silent to any question asked. They spoke in their native language, a confusing mix of Bangla and Assamese dialect.

Metrolife asked a man at Pehlwan Chowk about the language these people speak and was told “it is a kind of Assamese one speaks in

Guwahati.” And the reason for their silence and fear to disclose anything about their lives? “I know them, they are here for more than 20 years. When we are Indians there is nothing to fear,” the man said, refusing to disclose his name.

The latent fear came to the fore when the man added
‘Indians’ without any questions being asked about the nationality of these labourers. But the general impression is that they are Bangladeshi migrants who’ve settled here. If they voice their problems they will also have to disclose their identity, which they don’t
want to.

They expect no help and moreover reject any kind of hand that reaches out to them. Their worst fear is the construction of the new DND bypass near Maharani Bagh-Kalindi Kunj because of which they would all have to
evacuate the place.

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