After a full day at work, Sheikh Samsuddin in his late 70’s hardly feels like doing anything. All he wants is a peaceful sleep to make himself ready for a new tomorrow.
He is reluctant to eat for a few hours, until the stench has receded from his nostrils and his hard work is scrubbed from his finger nails. He collapses on his bed and falls asleep.
Samsuddin is a garbage picker in Soura, Srinagar.
He is one of the oldest garbage pickers of his colony, a settlement outside the Achin dumping site, a controversial place where Srinagar’s waste is dumped into what used to be a lake once.
The inhabitants of this settlement perform a vital role for the city, rifling through the debris, recycling anything of worth and carefully disposing the rest.
A significant number of households in Srinagar do not have a formal system of house-to-house garbage collection, so it falls to the city’s garbage pickers.
These pickers are not paid for their services, but have relied on this garbage to earn meager profits from the sale of it. The pickers are one of the poorest and most marginalized groups, on the bottom of the society.
Collecting rubbish and earning a livelihood this way anywhere is not free of risks. Cleaning the residue of a ‘modern life’, this work is mostly done by the migrant labourers who live in makeshift tents.
Samsuddin from West Bengal has been into this job for more than 40 years now. Sifting through the onion peels, half-eaten fruits, gadget boxes, bio-medical and sanitary waste, he says he has been collecting waste from Soura for more than 10 years now and it makes him stand witness to the urbanization going in the area.
On the bottom of the social order, Samsuddin witnesses firsthand the minuscule changes happening in the society though their domestic refuse which he says exhibits to him the shift in consumer practices and human behaviours.
Ten years ago, he says, people didn’t consume this much junk food or bottled drinks like today. They didn’t even have the practice of using diapers for their kids, but he sees a lot of them now.
From his transitory encounters with this change, every morning, he knows at what pace the households in which areas are, are changing their living patterns.
There are more like him, who on a daily basis witness this phenomenon.
Silently cleaning domestic refuse and making lives better, safe and healthy for the city, the garbage pickers’ own lives remain buried beneath this garbage.
Not only are the garbage pickers vulnerable to different health hazards but their families suffer too. They collect the garbage, pile it up in the slum and then segregate it. This practice brings all the health hazards into their home.
In Zoonimar, a slum near Alijan road, the mothers complain of children being ill on a regular basis. The women of the slum say that their children often vomit, have cramps, diarrhea, fever, cough and cold.
A leading pediatrician of the valley believes that poor hygiene is the basic reason behind the illness. He further says that these children are vulnerable to more serious diseases like gastrointestinal infections, respiratory disorders, scabies and they are often anemic, have deficiencies and even develop rickets.
These children have zero access to basic rights of childhood and are seen playing with the scrap while no one keeps a check on them to ensure that they don’t touch anything toxic.
The doctor also predicts that both children and elders can develop serious problems like HIV, conjunctivitis and other infectious diseases in case they come in contact with medical or Bio-medical waste from the hospital nearby.
Less personal hygiene, due to lack of sanitary facilities can also lead to many issues like food poisoning, gastroenteritis, diarrhea and skin infections.
While many of these problems were visible on ground, the victims of these diseases cannot identify them as health problems because they have accepted it as part of their daily life, and these issues have normalised.
Samasddin on being interviewed about his health had a cold response like, “I am fine.”
As soon as he was introduced to the symptoms of possible diseases he started identifying to the problems like breathing issues and revealed that he has been put on Asthmatic treatment.
He also complained of body ache and high body temperature on a regular basis.
Even his wife complained of gastro-intestinal infection and body ache and was recently taken to doctor were she was given an anti-biotic medicine.
Women in the settlement complained of gastro-intestinal infections, body ache and skin allergies.
These health hazards can be controlled if proper living conditions are provided to them.
The doctors believe that over time they start developing resistance to various health problems and their immunity becomes strong, but this does not lower their risk to deadly infectious diseases.