Caption: Dr Ajantha Perera at a dump site in Sri Lanka giving identity cards to the waste pickers.
By AJANTHA PERERA
The first time I saw waste pickers among the piles of garbage, they were almost difficult to be recognized as their clothes blended well with the dirty garbage around them. It is a sight that I could never erase from my mind. Human beings in dirtiest of clothes moving among the rubbish piles made me wonder whether this was really possible. Out of my great desire to get closer to them, to talk to them I somehow made my way slipping all over on the wet garbage. They were more shocked to see me than I was to see them. Slipping on garbage was nothing compared to the discomfort of the bad smell emitting from the rotting pile of garbage. At that moment I wished that I never had a nose. This was in 1992, at the garbage dump of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Ever since then each time I visit a new country, I make sure that I visit their waste dump. By looking at the waste dump I could assess the mindset of the people of that country.
People who came to pick waste at the dump site were the poorest of the poor. They were people who had no say in life. They did not lift their heads even to answer the questions I was firing at them, in a hurry to dodge the garbage trucks. As time went on they became some of my best friends. Most of my academic colleagues could not understand as to why I spent so much time with them. There were not only men and women at the dump, but also children. This was one reason why I continued to visit the site as I was keen to make sure that the children went to school, because they certainly did not belong at the dump site. The waste pickers were however not so keen to send them to school, as whatever the children collected also brought an extra income to the family.
I still remember one day asking one of the 12 year old child collecting waste at the dump site,” why don’t you go to school, you should study pass exams and get a good clean job”. The child looked at me and gave an answer that almost made me fall on the garbage. “I earn at least Rs. 200 each day, even if I go to school and get a job, I will still be earning that much, so why should I go to school”. Fortunately I had persuasive power enough then to put them all back to school. Sending them to school often meant having to buy shoes, uniforms, books and picking them up in the morning and taking them to school, because neither their family, nor their friends encouraged them. Even though many of these children were almost 8 to 14 years old they did not know how to read and write hence a non-formal education unit had to be developed to teach them to read and write.
The society did not accept the waste pickers, because they wore shoes that they have found at the dump site, they were uneducated, their clothes smelled of garbage they did not measure up to the standard that the world considered as a valuable human being. But as I spent time with them I learnt that they are far wiser than most of the well-dressed persons walking down the streets. Knowing the mind-set of the society I asked one of them “why do you come to the dirtiest place on earth to earn a living”. His answer is superb enough to teach many who hold responsible positions in the world; he immediately replied” It is better than stealing”.
In order to provide security for them I made them members of my National Program for recycling of solid Waste, Sri Lanka. They were given access to all dump sites and were provided with carts to collect waste. The most important was to build their confidence, which happened over the years that we spent time with them, recognizing them, bring them to television stations, speaking about them in the media, educating them, appreciating them. Today they are a confident group of people, accepted by the Government as key players in waste management, and their role is included in the National Policy for Solid waste Management in Sri Lanka. The waste picking is today considered as a green job.
Since meeting them in 1992, I have changed tremendously. Meeting the people who understood the value of waste, who did not want to steal, but worked hard even in the dirtiest place on earth to earn an honest living and contributed daily to improve the National economy of the country, are the people who guided me to change the Sri Lankan society. I thank God for giving me a PhD in the field of Environmental Science, and taking me to meet these beautiful waste pickers at one of the dirtiest places on earth. I today talk about recycling of waste all over the world, including in Fiji, but God first recycled my PhD at the dump site of Sri Lanka to put it for better use. Today with the experience I gained in Sri Lanka I visited the waste pickers of Lautoka to help their families to contribute better to the National economy. Their words too stay in my mind. One day as I was about to leave the site they asked “When are you coming back, we will be praying for you”. They have a good heart and a clear mind, which enable them to give much to the society. In their hands the waste that the society has thrown away turns back into dollars.
Dr. (Mrs) Ajantha Perera is the Assistant Professor-Environmental Science, Fiji National University – Lautoka.