One of Aman Luthra’s favorite memories from his childhood growing up in Delhi was watching the excitement generated by the arrival of the neighborhood “kabariwala” (literally “itinerant buyer of recyclables”).
“As soon as my mother and the other neighborhood women heard him crying out that he was there, they’d rush to sell him all the old newspapers, tin cans, glassware, and anything else recyclable that they had accumulated,” says Luthra, now 36. “The women would get a few rupees for their trouble, and the man would collect enough to sell to bigger dealers, and so on.”
In this way, Luthra’s community kabariwala was part of a centuries-old system of informal waste collection and recycling that not only provides livelihoods for an estimated 1.5 million Indians but is also extremely efficient in recycling garbage and waste. Today, however, that system and way of life are under siege, due to India’s rapid modernization, according to Luthra, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering who has spent the last several years studying Delhi’s waste pickers for his dissertation.
Many cities across India have largely privatized their waste- removal services, essentially cutting large swaths of the existing, waste picker web out of the equation. Waste pickers, who have responded by organizing themselves as “legitimate waste management service providers,” often end up working longer, without pay, than before.
“Legitimacy as urban service providers is a double-edged sword,” says Luthra.