Trash-to-energy plan worries New Delhi ragpickers

Leaning on a battered set of scales while flies swarmed his piles of trash, Akbar said he wasn't demanding much: "All I want is continued access to waste."

Akbar is one of an estimated quarter-million people in New Delhi who make their living in the informal world of garbage. While ragpickers go door-to-door collecting and sorting waste, Akbar, a 29-year-old who uses only one name, is a middleman who buys the most valuable trash and resells it to recyclers.

Those whose survival depends on this gray market fear their lives are about to be upended. Where they see money in those mountains of garbage, the New Delhi government sees electricity.

Desperate for cheap energy, the Delhi government is experimenting with power plants fueled by garbage. One plant is running on a trial basis and two more are under construction.

If those plants go online, they would generate enough electricity to power 50,000 homes by burning much of the 8,000 tons of garbage the Indian capital generates each day. That garbage would be hauled from homes and offices by private companies, instead of the networks of ragpickers who came to the city seeking opportunity and found it wheeling pushcarts of garbage through the streets.

Some who recycle 100 kilograms (220 pounds) daily can earn as much as $6 a day, but most earn about $4.

Akbar is more of a mogul, with nine collectors who come to him to sell their sifted waste.

"Where others see filth, I see opportunity," he said, proudly surveying the mountains of garbage and swatting flies hovering near his mouth.

City officials declined repeated requests for comment, but have said that the issue of garbage collection was complex and was being studied.

Environmentalists have joined the ragpickers in opposing the trash-to-energy plan, saying incineration is neither clean nor renewable energy.

But for waste pickers, "The single most important thing ... is access to garbage," said Federico Demaria, a researcher working with the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, a group that represents the ragpickers. "If the (waste-to-energy) plants start burning it, the government is condemning hundreds of thousands of people to unimaginable poverty."

Their lives are already difficult. A ragpicker named Munari and his five illiterate sons collect trash from about 1,700 homes, and must spend much of their earnings on bribes and rent. They live in a cluster of shelters made from plastic sheeting and corrugated metal near a 70-acre (28-hectare) public landfill site.

"The work is hard and life tough," said Munari, sitting on a small rope bed in front of his hut. But he added that life is better here than it was in his former home in the impoverished state of Bihar.

The ragpickers live a hazy legal existence. They pay bribes for the right to collect the city's garbage, doing the work that the city's 30,000 official garbage collectors are supposed to do, but don't, confident that the government won't bother to try to fire them.

Akbar's home and office is in a brick building surrounded by piles of paper, plastic and glass 10 feet high (3 meters high). He points to a rusty tricycle loaded with plastic bottles and grins with the brashness of a Wall Street broker.

Trash is "like our gold," he said. "The prices are changing all the time, so we have to monitor the situation and cash in at the peak."

While he enjoys his smartphone and clean clothes, he doesn't know what he or the thousands of other residents of the poor Seemapuri neighborhood will do if the new plants go into operation.

"Recycling is what 70 to 80 percent of the residents do. We have nowhere else to go," he said.