New Delhi, INDIA—Raju and dozens of children are quietly attempting to climb a giant mountain of trash. Minutes before, with jute sacks clinging to their shoulders, they snuck through a hole in the fence of the largest landfill in India’s capital city New Delhi. It takes them 10 minutes to reach the 65-meter peak of the Ghazipur landfill’s rancid garbage heap.
Eight-year-old Raju is one of hundreds of thousands of children who secretly scavenge through the 1,300 massive landfills across India every day in search of sellable garbage for recycling. They do so at serious expense of their health and safety. “Many times I find syringes,” Raju told VICE World News. His name has been changed to protect his privacy. “When I was younger, it used to hurt a lot when I would get pricked by needles, but now I don’t cry.”
Generations of Raju’s Dalit family have been collecting trash. For centuries, the backbone of India’s waste management were Dalits, a historically oppressed community who fall outside the Hindu social caste system. But recent government policies have attempted to exclude not just Dalit children, but also adults from waste management, without offering them alternative job prospects.
Private companies are now increasingly controlling the country’s waste. Contractual workers and corporations are the only ones with access to landfills. But Dalit garbage pickers continue to sneak into landfills to look for recyclables.
Even though India now has the third highest number of billionaires in the world - 169 - wealth, occupation and social mobility in the country are still inextricably linked to caste. Nine out of 10 Indian billionaires belong to the upper Baniya caste, traditionally made of traders or moneylenders. On the other end of the spectrum, many Dalits, like Raju, remain trapped in the intergenerational occupation of trash handling.
As India overtakes China in population and garbage, the country has made big global promises to regulate and control its massive trash problem. But experts say government policies are failing because they aren’t consulting traditional trash pickers.
“It is impossible to stop dumping or to clear these landfills because the state is excluding communities with the most knowledge of what to do with the waste,” Shashi Pandit, the president of the All-India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, a union of waste pickers in India, told VICE World News. “India’s development rests on injustice meted out towards these communities.”
Pandit said in the past big government projects such as the Waste to Energy plants have failed because of the exceedingly dangerous levels of pollutants emitting from them because the waste wasn’t segregated.
Last year, India’s landfills were the second-highest methane emitter in the world, according to satellite observations by the European Space Agency. This is despite India’s global promises to develop innovative solid and waste management systems. The lieutenant governor of New Delhi, VK Saxena, recently claimed that they had already stopped dumping at one of the city’s landfills in Okhla. But VICE World News saw at least 20 trucks dumping waste at the same landfill within three hours.
India’s 1.4 billion strong population produces 62 million tons of waste every year, according to official estimates. But the World Bank puts the number at 277 million tons, the weight of which is equivalent to at least 554 empty Burj Khalifa buildings. Deficiencies in the country’s waste management system means most of this waste ends up at the 1,300 recorded landfills, which have been overflowing for years. The Ghazipur landfill alone grows by 10 meters every year.
Only 20 percent of India’s waste is recycled. At home, Raju’s family segregates the garbage into recyclables and non-recyclables. Those that sell for as little as 20 cents include plastic bottles and iron scraps. “Our children pick rich children’s waste, and this is what we’ve done all our lives,” she told VICE World News. In the capital alone, at least 10,000 waste pickers are children, according to the international non-profit organisation Save the Children.
A February 2023 report by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, said that only 61.5 percent of waste is currently being processed, while the rest makes its way to landfills, where waste pickers like Raju and his family pick up and separate waste without officially being assigned to do so.
India’s waste management is estimated to be a $15 billion industry. Unni, the urban poverty expert, says that the waste pickers are deliberately left out of the system to exclude them from the possibilities of better wages, jobs and assets. A recent study found that oppressed Dalits and tribal communities, who make up over 30 percent of the population, own less than 10 percent of the country’s assets collectively.
“Waste has always been associated with the notion of caste purity in India,” Aravind Unni, an expert on urban poverty, who works with the non-profit Indo Global Social Service Society in India, told VICE World News. “[It’s got to do with the belief] that it should be picked up and dropped near margins of the society.”
Even the private companies in control of these trash mountains at landfills have caste advantages. A waste-to-energy plant in New Delhi’s Okhla landfill, for instance, is a public partnership between Jindal Urban Infrastructure, owned by billionaire Naveen Jindal, and the Delhi government, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Both Jindal and Kejriwal are from the upper Baniya caste.
Raju and his family are not educated, nor does anyone in his neighbourhood go to school. Working with garbage is their life. “I want to work here and I want to earn more from this waste,” said Raju when asked what he wants to do when he grows up.
Pandit says this is the only way for their communities to survive without opportunities for social or occupational mobility.
“If this goes away, they will lose the last sliver of survival,” he said.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.