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Superheroes | The forgotten soldiers: Kathmandu’s trash collectors

Cilla Khatry

Cilla Khatry

Superheroes | The forgotten soldiers: Kathmandu’s trash collectors

Chalk it up to the public’s attitude towards them, or the companies they work for always telling them to cater to each household’s demands and rarely ever addressing their woes, theirs is a thankless job

A shrill whistle goes off as you are sitting down with your morning cup of steaming milk tea. You sigh in relief. You had started becoming slightly concerned about the overflowing trash can near the main gate. Someone is finally here to empty it out. You take a sip of your tea and pick up the newspaper.

Perhaps a similar scene plays out in most households of Kathmandu that, according to Solid Waste Management Association of Nepal, collectively generate 1,200 tons of waste a day, of which 65 percent is organic waste and 15-20 percent is recyclable. And handling our waste are around 4,000 laborers from 75 private companies and municipalities.

Kathmandu’s inability and unwillingness to segregate its waste—resulting in trash collectors having to lug heavy loads and worse, suffering cuts and injuries because of broken glasses and such—has always been glaring. But waste-pickers say that is nothing compared to how undignified their job feels. Chalk it up to the public’s attitude towards them, or the companies they work for always telling them to cater to each household’s demands and rarely ever addressing their woes, theirs is a thankless job.

“I have become accustomed to people calling me ‘fohor bhai’ and even scolding and screaming at me,” says 38-year-old Surendra Bhusal. He has been working as a trash collector in Kathmandu for a decade and, in those 10 years, not once has anyone said a kind word to him. Waste-pickers, he laments, are often treated like trash because they work with trash.

The mindset reflects in our actions. Most of us aren’t conscious or a little sensitive about what we are throwing and the fact that someone, an actual person, will have to manually sort through it. Bhusal says there are often soiled pads, broken shards of glass, kitchen waste and plastic cold drink bottles all in the same bin or plastic bag. It makes their jobs more difficult and fraught with risks. There have been times when dirty water and slime have splashed onto Bhusal’s face and clothes. It makes him feel like the lowest of the low in society, he says.

What’s worse, says 39-year-old Khadga Bahadur, is that there is no solidarity among workers which makes it difficult for them to campaign for their cause—dignified labor, sensible work hours, better pay, and health insurance.

Bahadur, who has been on the job for 16 years, works for 12 to 13 hours a day (out of which four to five hours are spent walking from one place to another), with a one-hour lunch break in-between. On average, he visits 400 to 500 houses and in half of those places he has to go inside to collect the garbage. This makes his work tedious, confusing, and time-consuming.

“Our job comes with many hidden costs. We regularly suffer from small injuries and diseases. After many years in the job, most of us develop long-term health issues,” he says. However, neither the public nor the government seem concerned and trash-collectors, without whom our households simply wouldn’t function, find themselves in a quandary. Their livelihoods depend on their ability to work but the work they do puts their health at stake.

The Covid-19 pandemic worsened their already dire situation. As essential service workers, waste-pickers have had to put aside their fears of contracting the infection and taking it back home to their families. While some have been given masks, gloves, and boots by their companies, most have had to buy their own protective gears.

Prakash Pariyar, 49, says a few of his colleagues have contracted Covid-19 but they didn’t get any financial assistance whatsoever. The hospital bills have created a dent in their savings, one they will never be able to recoup. As frontline workers, they were to receive the vaccine at the same time as police officials. However, none of the 10 trash collectors ApEx spoke to had been vaccinated. They also don’t know of anyone in their circle who has received even a single dose of the vaccine. This is when many other frontline workers—doctors, nurses, drivers, deliverymen, etc.—have taken both the prescribed doses.

“We are the nation’s forgotten people. No one cares about our wellbeing. We are as disposable as the garbage we get rid of,” says 42-year-old Bhim Bahadur Gurung. He doesn’t want to make a fuss because he knows nothing will come out of it. But he wishes to get vaccinated: Forget putting his loved ones at risk, if he contracts the infection and isn’t able to work, how will his family of five survive?

Pariyar has given up hope that their situation will improve. It’s not going to happen, at least not in his lifetime. Of that, he is sure. For 22 years, he has worked relentlessly from 5:30 am till 7:00 pm or later but the long hours he has clocked in haven’t amounted to much. There is no financial security; everything he earns is spent running the household. He isn’t a valued member of the society; most people hurl abuses at the slightest mistake and not one person knows his name. Everyone simply calls out to him as ‘fohor’, ‘oye’ and very rarely, ‘dai’.

“Some households gave us food supplies and cash during the previous lockdowns. But this time everyone is scared to have any kind of contact with us because the virus is said to be highly infectious,” says Pariyar.

What saddens trash collectors, however, isn’t that no one has come to their aid at such troubled times but the fact that they are still expected to carry on as if everything is okay all the while being acutely aware that they are feared as virus carriers. Some literally run away when they arrive while others shout instructions from the rooftops of their homes. Bhusal says they are made to feel both wanted and unwanted at the same time. Though if trash were to magically disappear, the society would pretty much wish their existence away.

Sanjay Khatri, 25, says the situation wouldn’t be so bleak if every household at least put their trash-cans outside their gates. It’s okay if they don’t want to throw their garbage in the collection vehicle themselves, he says. But the mere suggestion of that more often than not leads to a stream of accusations and insults. They are told they aren’t doing their jobs properly and threatened with disciplinary action from their offices.

“There are so many problems in our line of work that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s best I turn a blind eye and just carry on. Otherwise, it’s too hurtful,” he says.