They gave up their lives as farmers to look for greener pastures in the City. What they found instead, was a career in rag picking, which paid them a little better than tilling land.
Over the past nineteen days, between bites of corn & japaleno canapes and sips of sparkling water, matters of farmers and livelihoods, local communities and conservation, sustainable growth and inclusive development have been the pet catch phrases of delegates in the hallowed halls of HICC.
India, which chaired the Conference of Parties, has been waxing eloquently on its path-breaking efforts to conserve biodiversity and the lives and livelihoods dependant on it. Not to forget the Rs.11,000 crore it claims to be spending each year on biodiversity related activities including everything from protected areas to creating “green” jobs.
If this carefully constructed facade is one India, there’s another waiting literally just outside the doors of the Conference. A half kilometre away from the HICC on the way to HITEX Charminar, is a settlement unlike any in the area. A motley crowd of men, women and kids sifts through the heaps and heaps of garbage, over six feet high. At first glance, it seems like a GHMC landfill site. It’s not. The garbage dump is home to hundreds of rag pickers, the invisible counterparts of municipal authorities.
Theirs is the true story of livelihoods in this country.
What is singularly tragic about their story is how they came to be there.
“We are originally farmers, not rag pickers. In our villages, we have our own houses and our lands. But there were no rains, not even water to drink, had no money to buy seeds, our children were going hungry, our cattle was dying. There was nothing left for us there.
“This is not pleasant work. The stench drives a lot of men here to drink and some people get sick because of the dirt, but at the end of the day, it fills our stomachs,” says Rangaiah, a farmer from Pattikonda district of Kurnool and a community leader in the settlement.
The acrid stench of rot, the swamp-like earth and hot fumes of asphalt doesn’t deter the crew. They commence operations at
4am every day collecting and segregate approximately 10 tonnes of paper and 3 tonnes of plastic a day. For which they will get Rs.2 per kilo. “The plastic will go to the factory in Gujarat and the paper will go to Nagpur through ‘the Company’,” he says.
“It’s not just us; thousands of our people left their villages and came to the City because everyone said they had jobs here. But we couldn’t find anything here. So we resorted to this,” pipes in Kameshwar, a farmer from Anantapur.
Each of the individuals involved in the settlement makes around Rs.5,000 to Rs.8,000 a month, say the members.
Despite having converted to their new profession and having been here for the past decade, they haven’t lost affinity for their soil.
“We go back every year to see our lands. But nothing has changed. Last year I invested Rs.1 lakh in planting tomato crops. By the time it yielded, the market changed and I got a total return of only Rs.10,000. Then we tried buying two bulls investing another Rs.1 lakh but had to sell them because we couldn’t afford to feed them,” rues another farmer, Srinvas Rao.
Do they know their fates are being discussed down the roads by the Indian government, among others? “We have no hope. They [the government] will give only to the rich. No one cares if we live or die. But we are sending our children to school. They should not grow up to be like us. They can be anything they want, but not farmers,” says Rajamma, a mother of two.