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Unsung Heroes: Meet rag pickers dedicated to restoring Kashmir's environment

03:36 PM May 28, 2023 IST | Seerat Bashir
unsung heroes  meet rag pickers dedicated to restoring kashmir s environment
Amidst their collection of waste from various sites, rag pickers pause for casual conversation outside their huts. Photo Credit: Seerat Bashir/Ground Report

In the breathtakingly beautiful region of Kashmir, where the splendor of nature captivates the senses, there is a band of unsung heroes working quietly to preserve the environment. These often ignored and underappreciated individuals, known as ragpickers, play a vital role in managing waste, recycling and mitigating the adverse impact of improper disposal on Kashmir's delicate ecosystem.

Unsung heroes preserving the beauty of Kashmir

These dedicated people, like Mohammad Iman Hussain, Juman Hussain and Kohinoor Begum, face the challenges and risks of their profession in collecting garbage from various sources and separating valuable materials for recycling. Their tireless efforts not only provide for their families, but also contribute to safeguarding the beauty of Kashmir for future generations.


Amidst their collection of waste from various sites, rag pickers pause for casual conversation outside their huts. Photo Credit: Seerat Bashir/Ground Report

It is a well-known fact that the world is faced with a staggering amount of plastic waste. With approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic in existence, 6.3 billion tons is nothing more than trash. Disturbingly, a recent study suggests that by the year 2030, there will be 53 million tons of plastic in our oceans, rivers, and lakes.

Every minute, around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are bought. Shockingly, only 9% of the plastic produced has ever been recycled. In this process of recycling plastic waste, the most important role is played by the workers of the land, the collectors and the anonymous champions of this cause: the ragpickers.


Research conducted in India a year ago by Santoshi Kumari and U.V. Kiran found that moppers primarily reported severe back pain in the lower back (65%), upper back (52.5%), feet (47%), and hands (43%). The older ragpickers, ages 55 to 65, reported higher levels of knee and back pain and discomfort compared to their younger counterparts.


A tired elderly rag picker takes a break, finding solace outside their humble shack. Photo Credit: Seerat Bashir/Ground Report

Rag pickers are at risk of various occupational ailments due to their regular exposure to municipal solid waste (MSW). Evidence shows that people involved in garbage collection may be susceptible to respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disorders, skin conditions, eye conditions, headaches, and muscle and joint disorders.


Journey of a rag picker

For the past few years, Mohammad Iman Hussain, a ragpicker residing in the HMT area slum colony in North Srinagar, has been diligently performing this noble work. Working long hours, often beyond 11 or 12 hours a day, Iman supports his family of five on the income he earns from collecting rags.


Riding on their three-wheeled bicycle trikes, equipped with bins to hold their collected trash, these unsung heroes roam the bustling city streets, picking up discarded items like aluminum cans, cardboard containers, and plastic bottles. Their diligent efforts ensure that such waste does not end up polluting the picturesque landscapes of Kashmir.

Three-wheeled bike rickshaw with a container at the back that rag pickers use to carry the trash./Three-Wheeled Trash Carriage: The Essential Vehicle for Rag Pickers. Photo Credit: Seerat Bashir/Ground Report

Iman, along with his fellow ragpickers, perseveres through the challenges and hardships that come with his profession, fueled by his commitment to providing for his family. During the busiest time of the year, from late May to December, they pick up the most trash.

Iman has successfully supported his family of five on her rag-collecting income. However, the work is not without difficulties. He often deals with cuts from blades and punctures from discarded injection needles. However, the work continues, as there is no one else to do it but them.

Survive difficulties

Another rag picker, Juman Hussain, 42, from HMT Srinagar, has been working in this field for seven years. Usually, he works from 4 in the morning until noon and then he has a full day off. Juman's wife and his three children also collect waste from various places to support the family. They are forced to work as ragpickers due to the difficulties they face, and there are times when they cannot afford food.

Kohinoor Begum, a 40-year-old woman who worked as a waste collector, came to Kashmir 17 years ago from Delhi with her husband and a newborn daughter. Later, they had a son in her house of her from HMT Srinagar.

Kohinoor told Ground Report, "My husband took care of our basic needs and our two children's education in a private school. We didn't let our children to work as rag pickers as we do because we wanted them to lead good lives.

Slum colony in the HMT area of north Srinagar, where rag pickers live. Photo Credit: Seerat Bashir/Ground Report

They had settled in Srinagar's Barbarshah rag pickers area after travelling to Kashmir. Then, after some time, they moved to this place. Because of other responsibilities at home and other issues, she didn't perform this job on a daily basis. Instead, she went to collect waste sometimes, usually when they were having difficulties.

"I was once attacked by a dog while collecting waste, and I'm not the only one, who has experienced dog bites among rag pickers", claims Kohinoor.

Hidden Health Hazards

Dr Arshid Jehangir, senior associate professor of Environmental science at the University of Kashmir told Ground Report that plastic is extremely damaging to the environment since it cannot biodegrade and instead builds up in the ecosystem. And over time, it essentially breaks down into little fragments that may move to any part of the ecosystem. It also enters the atmosphere and the oceans. It may essentially be transferred to several systems.

Dr Jehangir added, when plastics enter our ecosystem, they can essentially be consumed by the organisms that are present there. For example, if they are consumed by fish in a water ecosystem, a human being can consume that fish. These plastic materials that have attached these persistent organic pollutants can adhere with them certain types of chemicals, particularly persistent organic pollutants which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and heavy metals get attached to it and that are also carcinogenic.

The work of rag pickers is risky and unhygienic. They get in contact with numerous diseases. They are essentially exposed to any disease. About 40% to 60% of trash is biodegradable and can be combined with other materials to create fertiliser, but only 10% to 30% of it is recyclable garbage that can be removed from the waste stream, recycled, and then reintroduced into the system. In general, recycling is not done completely, but it does happen to some level, and it can be done by the informal sector are rag pickers, he added.

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Seerat Bashir

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