With better chances of earning a livelihood, Kashmir seems to be a favorite destination of the rag pickers from various north Indian states. They prefer scavenging over wage labour as it fetches them more money.
They collect rags, trash cans, used polythene carry bags, card board and plastic bottles from the trash dumps and sell it to wholesalers who further sell it to factories outside the state for recycling.
House painter-turned-rag-picker, Mohammed Saleem, a resident of Bikaner, Rajasthan has been living in the valley for the past ten years. He is happy with the job. Rag picking fetches him around Rs 200 daily and sometimes it may go up to Rs 300. “It is a dirty job. People dislike it but it fetches me a livelihood.”
His wife also works as a rag picker. They have a young daughter to look after and send some money to his parents in Rajasthan.
Their love affair brought them to Kashmir and the good earnings from rag-picking made them stay. “We had a love marriage. Parents refused to accept it so we fled and came to the valley,” Saleem said.
Mohammed Hussain of Narulla, Delhi, lives in Babdemb area and works as rag picker. He too is happy with it. Working here for the last fifteen years, Hussain manages to earn almost Rs 6000 monthly. Other family members also work increasing their total income. Hussain’s friends had suggested him to go to south India, but he likes the environment and the earnings here.
Almost every part of the city seems flooded with these rag pickers. From Pantha Chowk to Qamarwari and Bemina to Babademb, these rag pickers are present everywhere.
The rag-pickers remove a lot of recyclable trash from streets and dumping sites, helping the city to remain clean.
They leave early in the morning and work usually up to 2 pm moving from street to street and sifting various garbage dumps. Also places with good commercial activity are the sites of their interest.
Though most of the rag-pickers come from north Indian states, some hail from as far as Assam. Zakir does not know any Hindi and is unable to communicate with the locals but has been working in the valley for a couple of years.They don’t like to work as wage labourers as rag-picking fetches them more money and the flexibility to work according to their own sweet will.
“We can leave and come back at our own will. Nobody is there to monitor us and it gives better money as well,” Saleem said. The tin cans fetch them Rs20 per kilogram and cardboard is sold at the Rs5 a kg. And iron fillings too are sold at a good price.
Almost all the members of their families, including children, engage in rag-picking. Wife of Saleem, Sabella Khatuen leaves for work daily after completing her household work and returns by 1:00 pm to cook lunch.
Eight-year-old Mohammed Ashiq from Kolkatta is an orphan and works as a rag-picker. He says, he does it for the family. “They (children) are left here to play but they go and move around the colonies and collect the waste,” said Saleem.
Though all the rag-pickers are outsiders, the dealers are Kashmiris. Ali a scrap dealer at Bemina, buys the various recyclable items from rag-pickers and send these to outside dealers. Saleem sells the trash to ali, who makes payments in cash. There are many more scrap dealers in Srinagar.