Once a ragpicker, now he feeds 160 families

NEW DELHI: The theme of rags to riches hasn’t been as literal perhaps as in the life of Jaiprakash Chaudhary. The former ragpicker, who prefers to go by his nickname of Santu, started life Delhi two decades ago, earning at most Rs. 150 a day rummaging through garbage for recyclables. Today, he sells stuff retrieved from trash worth Rs. 11 lakh every month and employs 160 people at his two waste segregation centers in the capital.
The 23 years he has spent in Delhi after coming from Munger, Bihar, have been momentous for 40-year-old Santu. From a man, who began as a helper at a fruit shop for Rs 20 a day and then as a laborer, Santu is today the poster boy for ragpickers. He has lectured in places such as Copenhagen, Luxembourg and Brazil on waste and recycling and even changed the way his villagers considered his work. They once looked down on him for being a scavenger of sort. Today, as Santu points out, “My teachers feel that what I have done for the environment is something that even educated people haven’t been able to do.”
In 1994, he walked around Connaught Place, a sack on his back picking up waste he could resell. He did the work for a month but could not tolerate the discrimination he faced. He returned home to poverty. But two months later, he girded his belt and came back. “Discrimination is better than poverty,” Santu decided.
He opened a roadside shop in Raja Bazar jhuggi in 1996 where he purchased dry waste from trash collectors and re-sold them. “I was harassed by police and civic body officials for years. Even today some people believe that waste pickers are thieves and many people look at them with contempt,” says Santu. It certainly wasn’t easy for him in the early years.
The turning point came in 1999 when Santu formed an organisation of ragpickers called Safai Sena with the help of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, an NGO that works to create dignified livelihood for ragpickers. His aim was to help his ilk fight the discrimination they faced.
He shifted to Kotla from Raja Bazar in early 2000, but his waste storehouse was pulled down. The odorous nature of his work forced his displacement from Bhopura and later from Mahipalpur too. “I was removed because colonies began coming up close to my waste god owns. The displacements caused financial losses, but I held on to hope,” says Santu.
In 2012 he established his waste segregation centre in Sikandarpur in Ghaziabad, away from human settlements. He later set up another center near the New Delhi Railway Station, where 160 people work for him, having grown from the 40 he originally hired for Sikandarpur.
With the support of Chintan, he gets waste from around 10 malls and from offices and hotels in Delhi for Sikandarpur. The other unit gets material from the railway station. “In Sikandarpur, we get around 4 tonne of garbage and process three tonne of dry waste every day,” said Rajesh Kumar, supervisor of the segregation unit.
Chintan estimates that Santu’s employees segregate around 25% of Delhi’s total waste. Officials from municipal corporations across the country visit the Sikandarpur center to learn how to turn waste into wealth while greening the environment. In Copenhagen Santu opposed waste-to-energy power plants and advocated recycling, arguing, “Recycling can lift thousands out of poverty, while incinerating waste only creates pollution.”
In helping himself, Santu has helped many others. “My son left me after my husband died. Nobody was ready to hire an old woman, but I got a job here,” testified 65-year-old Narsimha, who works as a segregator. Like her, others have a stable job with the average salary being Rs. 7,000. No wonder, Chitra Mukherjee, head of operations at Chintan, says, “They are true environmentalists who prove that waste is a resource that can be used to alleviate poverty.”
The recently implemented Goods & Service Tax as disappointed Santu. There is a tax of 12-18% on recyclable waste material. Orders from recycling units are drying up, claims the waste processor, adding with passion, “The government should remove the GST on recyclable waste because it actually promotes a clean environment.”

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