Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info
The Other India

India's booming economy has created a huge middle class, but hundreds of millions of people still live in desperate poverty.

By Amelia Gentleman in New Delhi

After a bad day at work, Manorama Begum can hardly keep from vomiting. After a good day, she merely puts off eating for a few hours, until the stench has left her nostrils and her fingernails have been scrubbed clean.

Begum, 35, is a garbage collector in New Delhi, India's capital. She is one of 300,000 workers who perform a vital role for the city: rifling through the refuse of modern life, recycling anything of worth, and carefully disposing of the rest.

Their way of life exemplifies 21st-century India's stark economic contrasts. A great deal of attention has been focused, and rightly so, on India's economic boom in recent years: India's economy has grown by 6 percent annually since 1991—a rate exceeded only by China—and investments from companies like Microsoft, General Electric, and Motorola have fueled the growth of an enormous middle class.

Nevertheless, the majority of Indians live on about 50 cents a day. While the economic boom has generated hundreds of thousands of jobs in the technology and service industries, only 10 percent of India's 1.1 billion people have such jobs. Most Indians don't work in offices, but instead lay bricks, harvest crops, or pick up garbage.

More than 95 percent of New Delhi has no formal system of house-to-house garbage collection, so it falls to the city's ragpickers, one of India's poorest and most marginalized groups, to provide this basic service. They are not paid by the government, relying instead on donations from the communities they serve and on meager profits from the sale of discarded items.

Now, after centuries of submissive silence, the waste collectors are beginning to demand respect. In October, the Delhi state government made a small but significant concession. In response to pressure from a ragpickers' union, it supplied about 6,000 workers with protective gloves, boots, and aprons. This is the first time the government has made any effort to recognize this band of essential workers.

"Looking after rubbish, anywhere in the world, is not dignified," says J. K. Dadoo, the Secretary of Delhi's Environment Ministry. "The very fact that we have acknowledged that we need to look after their health is a tremendous acknowledgment of their dignity."

The waste collectors are underwhelmed. They do not want gloves, they say. They want a salary, health care, uniforms that they hope will discourage police harassment, education for their children, and decent housing.

New Delhi's waste-disposal system is informal, yet highly organized. Its capacity to recycle plastics and paper is efficient beyond the dreams of the most progressive recycling nations in the West. In a society where hundreds of millions live in desperate poverty, everything has a value.

Most striking, the city's neglect of those who perform this service is typical of a much broader blindness toward those excluded from India's blossoming economy.

On Begum's daily rounds of 350 apartments, there are the hard-up families who save their plastic milk cartons to sell to passing dealers for a few extra rupees. There are the generous ones, like those who donated money for Begum's 16-year-old daughter's wedding. There are the mean-spirited, who never give the expected monthly donation of 10 rupees, or 25 cents, she needs to feed her four children.

'Who would like to collect garbage?'

"If everyone paid me, I'd earn 3,500 rupees [about $88]," she says. "I never even get 1,500 [about $38]."

Her husband, Muhammad Nazir, a ragpicker who works in a more affluent area of the city, says he can see the city's transformation in the trash he handles. "People are earning more, they are spending more, they are throwing more stuff away now that Delhi has got rich," he says.

But it remains hard to scrape an existence from the refuse of middle-class life. The couple separate out the vegetable matter (about 2 to 3 cents per 2.2 pounds), newspapers (2 to 3 cents), and glass bottles (about 18 cents), then take the salable items to their nearby slum, where the middleman is based. On average, they each earn 40 rupees a day—about $1.

Their home is made from items salvaged on their rounds: The walls are lined with flattened cardboard boxes; the ceiling is patched with automobile floor mats.

"It is the poverty that makes us do this work," Begum says. "If I had an alternative, I wouldn't be doing it. Who would like to collect garbage?"