They come to Bengaluru for a life in rag picking

They come to Bengaluru for a life in rag picking

A sizeable number of destitute Bengali migrants plan their move to Bengaluru to take up rag picking in the fast growing city despite numerous health and other risks

Rag pickers in Bengaluru. Credit: Image provided by authors

Bengaluru, India’s tech-hub, is a dream destination for many IT-educated youth. What many do not know is that this south Indian city is also among the preferred destinations for thousands of unskilled migrant workers from eastern, northern and north-eastern states of India. 

A sizable number of these unskilled migrant workers find themselves, not in traditional sectors such as construction work, but in rag picking. If one travels through Kempapura Layout of Hebbal, in the north-east end of the city, one can clearly catch sight of shanties surrounded by mounds of dry scraps hidden behind the skyscrapers. These are the habitations of Bengali rag pickers. 

In the last two decades, Bengaluru’s population has increased enormously from 5.8 million in 2001 to 8.6 million in 2011 and further to 12.3 million in 2020. Along with an increase in population, production of solid waste in the city has increased enormously. As per the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city was producing 5,757 tonnes of waste per day in 2019, which was 2500-3000 tonnes in 2014-15. Only 68 per cent of the waste generated is collected by municipal bodies and the rest is scavenged by the rag pickers. 

While interviewing these Bengali ragpickers last year in two phases (January-February and June-July, 2019) many interesting stories emerged. With poor wage rates, unemployment and uncertainty of work in Bengal, the shift to Bengaluru for rag-picking is quite a planned move for most of them. We came across many rag pickers who were in this profession for nearly 10 years.

Economic imperative

Saiful Sheikh (32), who is engaged in rag picking for the last 2-3 years said, “Earlier I used to work as an agricultural labourer in Bengal. My earning was not enough to run a household of six members. One of my fellow villagers, who was already in Bengaluru, told me about this work and I came here. Although I do not like this job, I can earn Rs 250 to Rs 500 per day. I can send more money to my family back in the village.” 

While many incumbent rag pickers were instrumental in bringing more people for rag picking from their own villages, some of the rag pickers have come to Bengaluru through thikadars (contractors dealing with scraps). Contractors, who are also Bengalis, generally employ 20-30 rag pickers each for collecting scraps from the city. 

The rag pickers are paid by the contractor according to weights and type of the materials they collect each day. The contractor sells those materials to the scrap dealers (usually local people) at different prices based on weight or type of material. The contractors reported that their profit margins were falling as the scrap dealers were not ready to pay them as much as they used to pay earlier. For example, earlier the cardboard boxes were sold at Rs 6-7 per kg, which now reduced to Rs 3-4 per kg in the current period. 

Families can migrate

The work of rag-picking is tiresome. Carrying the scraps through undulating roads of Bengaluru is not easy. Many develop body ache at the end of a days’ work. The rag pickers were very clear with their answers when they were asked why they chose this odd job and not any other work. There are certain clear advantages. They make more money than what they could have made in other jobs since they lack both education and skill. They do not need to work every day. They can take advance money from contractors in case of need. And more importantly, they can bring their families – an option which migrant workers engaged in other jobs do not have. 

Manna, a rag picker in his mid-thirties, told us how bringing his wife to Bengaluru has doubled his family income after his wife started working as a maid servant in a nearby apartment building. They now earn more money to send back home in Bengal where their children are staying with the grandparents.  

Numerous risks

The living conditions of the rag pickers are poor, unhygienic and lack basic services such as water supply and electricity. In the absence of proper toilets, they manage with make-shift toilets.  They live in constant fear of being evicted by the municipal authorities. Gyanendra, one of the contractors of rag pickers in his early forties, describes the condition as precarious and shaky.  He said: “The type of work that I am engaged in here is shrouded with anxiety and uncertainty. I am staying in Hebbal for the last nine years and till now I had to change places 4 times. With every shift, my labourers (rag pickers) also shifted with me.” The accommodations for the rag pickers and their families are provided by the contractors.

The rag pickers are always at a higher risk of contracting numerous infectious diseases, especially skin diseases as they spend most of their time in the dumping sites shifting through the mounds of rotten, unhygienic and germ rich scraps.  When asked about medical care, Aznarul. a rag picker in his mid-30s told us: “Medical vans come here and conduct check-ups once in a month. They also provide free vaccines for the children. However, if we fall ill in between, we need to visit a nearby private doctor who takes a fee of 100 rupees and the cost of the medicines comes at least 500-600 rupees.” For the rag pickers, incomes are higher in Bengaluru, so are the expenses. Moreover, their incomes are now less than what they used to be earlier. But in spite of their falling income, constant insecurity of shelter and hazardous nature of the job, they do not want to return to their native villages. 

Don’t want to return

Nearly a year after we conducted the survey, we could again contact some of these rag pickers over the phone during the third and fourth phases of the lockdown (May 2020). With long telephonic conversations with them, we heard from them about their state of affairs. They were staying without work and income for nearly two months. To our biggest surprise, when the migrants all over the country were desperate to return to their villages, these Bengali rag pickers were not very keen to return. 

Aznarul Sheikh, who has been staying with his wife and two children in Hebbal for the last four years, said he was without any work for the last two months and his wife Amina, who was working in a nearby apartment, was also not getting her full salary. “Sometimes police and NGO staff come to our area and provide us with uncooked and cooked food items,” he said. In spite of all the inconvenience, neither Aznarul nor Amina are willing to return to their village and counting days when everything will become normal and they will start working. 

Unemployment, uncertainty of work, poverty have forced these people to leave their homes and made them travel thousands of kilometres in search of livelihood. Like other migrant workers, they too are stranded jobless but the fear of an uncertain future is holding them back.

*All names are changed to preserve the privacy of the respondents.

(Monalisha Chakraborty is a PhD student and Subrata Mukherjee is an Associate Professor, at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.