03/10/2013 11:13 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Meet Kanchi Tamang, Nepalese Waste Picker

Kanchi Tamang is a waste-picker in Nepal. A mother and a grandmother, she works long hours in unsafe and unclean conditions for a pittance. After contracting Hepatitis C, then developing painful gallstones, she faces the prospect of medical treatment that will require her to be absent from work and hospital bills that, together with the loss of work income, might mean that she loses her home and cannot support her family. Yet if she does not receive treatment, she might lose her life, not just her livelihood.

Kanchi Tamang, working. All photos courtesy of Practical Action

Kanchi Tamang is a waste-picker in Nepal. A mother and a grandmother, she works long hours in unsafe and unclean conditions for a pittance. After contracting Hepatitis C, then developing painful gallstones, she faces the prospect of medical treatment that will require her to be absent from work and hospital bills that, together with the loss of work income, might mean that she loses her home and cannot support her family. Yet if she does not receive treatment, she might lose her life, not just her livelihood.

Another waste-picker in Kathmandu

Kanchi and other waste pickers make a living from collecting rubbish. They live in squatter settlements along Nepal's river banks and are vulnerable to many health risks due to their poor living conditions and their work. On rubbish dumps diseases and germs can proliferate unchecked; people working on them are exposed directly to a range of chemical, biological and physical hazards including toxic substances, broken glass, contaminated needles and faecal matter. They suffer from cuts that get infected, respiratory diseases, stomach complaints and have debilitating muscular problems because of the back-breaking work they have to do every day.

There are an estimated 15,000 waste pickers in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu and while there are no official government figures, it is estimated that Kathmandu produces around 10 tonnes of waste a day. Waste pickers help make sure 1,500 tons of garbage leaves the Kathmandu valley each week. Yet of the 413 waste pickers interviewed by Practical Action, 28% of them said they had been injured in the work place while working in the last 6 months and 35.4% said they became ill from different types of diseases in the last 6 months.

More on the health hazards of waste picking can be seen in this video:

An average bag shredder like Kanchi earns as little as 150 rupees (£1) a day. To put this into context, an operation to treat gallstones costs 60,000 rupees. A consultation with a doctor in a government hospital costs 150 rupees and a typical prescription can cost a further 600 rupees.

The charity Practical Action is currently running a project working with the waste pickers who make a living from collecting rubbish. The aim of the project is to give waste pickers access to safety equipment, health insurance and education and develop their entrepreneurial skills so they can create their own businesses selling products made from the recyclables they collect.

Recycled waste goods

This development of skills is necessary given the dangerous environment in which they work and the relatively meagre, subsistence-level (or below) income gained from physically demanding and time intensive waste picking.

These are average earnings for waste workers in Nepal:

  • Wet waste workers earn £2-2.50 a day (300-400 Nepalese rupees)
  • Dry waste workers earn £3-5 a day (500-800 Nepalese rupees)
  • Waste segregators earn £1.80 a day (290 Nepalese rupees)

Waste workers can make 6 rupees (4p) per kilo of plastic but they can make 24 (15p) rupees per kilo of plastic if it is torn and dried. The charity project can help them with this by providing machines.

Waste pickers can also make more money by turning the plastic they find into objects to sell such as baskets, purses, mobile phone covers, key rings and pen pots. To put the experiences of Kanchi and the waste pickers who work alongside her, I was enlightened by an exclusive and very vivid on-the-ground by Andy Heath, a former journalist who has been working with Practical Action for 16 months. His testimony about the harsh physical environment, discriminatory social conditions and hard labour bring home the reality of waste pickers' lives. I quote his report here, with thanks and with permission:

The stench of shit and household waste combines with clouds of flies and stifling heat to engulf me as I walk through the corrugated iron gate. I look down and see a used condom lying on an oozing brown liquid which I hope is mud, but could easily be something worse. I think that as a place of work, it doesn't get worse than this. Then my stomach lurches, I turn away and retch.

Kanchi Tamang works here every day. When she isn't at work she lives with two teenage sons and her 13-year-old orphan granddaughter Pushpa in a claustrophobic room in the hot, sweaty city of Kathmandu. Pushpa's mum committed suicide eight years ago following an argument with her husband, whose own alcoholism killed him when Pushpa was ten.

It left Kanchi with no choice but to bring all three children up, so every day the 52-year-old gets up at dawn to prepare a meal, gets her granddaughter to school and heads off to work at the waste dump described above, where she works for hours, crouched over filthy bags, surrounded by flies and foul-smelling waste to earn £1 a day.

Recently, Kanchi found she had contracted Hepatitis C. Shortly after she developed an excruciating gall stone and was faced with extortionate hospital costs, weeks off work and she was staring at the abyss of losing her house, her family and her life.

But this isn't a tale of desperate need and helplessness.

"I feel blessed," she said. "By myself, I could hardly survive, but with support from Practical Action and my eldest son, we do.

Practical Action is the only charity working with the thousands of waste pickers living in Kathmandu. Those they work with are seen as the lowest of the low in caste-obsessed Nepal. Bus drivers refuse to let them on buses, waste picker children are shunned and bullied at school, not just by fellow pupils, but by teachers too. Yet still people arrive in waves from rural villages in Nepal, desperate for the money they believe will help them out of the cycle of poverty.

And when they arrive, their typical pay is just £1 a day.

Despite the social stigma, grinding poverty and appalling working conditions, these very waste pickers prevent Kathmandu from being paralysed by its rubbish. The city has no formal mechanism for dealing with an estimated 10 tonnes of waste a day created by two million Kathmandu residents and thousands of tourists who flock to the city before heading off to the Nepal's famous mountains.

Instead, men and women like Kanchi sort, recycle and sell rubbish in what has become something of an unregulated black market where middle-men exploit the weak and those unable to continue to work simply disappear. Either back to where they came from, or onto the streets like the rubbish they work with.

Enter Practical Action. The NGO promotes sustainable, simple solutions to problems poor people face in the developing world every day and works with around one in four of the 15,000 or so waste pickers in Kathmandu, and wants to reach even more.

"Waste pickers faced many issues," project manager Srijana Devotka said. "But we spoke to them and decided we could do something about their access to health care and education, their safety at work, the exploitation, the perception of them amongst the general population and their self-respect."

The charity organised waste-pickers into small groups, helped them create co-operatives and encouraged them to save tiny amounts of their money into health insurance schemes. They provided thousands of uniforms, safety gloves, hats and face masks to reduce illness and injury.

They identified honest middle-men who would pay a fair price for rubbish and held workshops with parents and schools to underline the importance of education to waste-picker children. Furthermore, they embarked on a remarkable drive to improve the perception of waste pickers among the population, starting with roadside posters and ending with training in which they help waste-pickers document their average day for the Nepalese media.

For Kanchi, it has been a life-changing experience. The health insurance scheme paid for half her medical costs, with the other half paid for by Practical Action. She works with no pain and even leads her local women's co-operative. Furthermore, Pushpa is doing well at school and dreams of becoming a doctor. "So that I can look after grandmother when she gets old," she tells me in a shy voice.

But Kanchi says she speaks for many of her fellow waste-pickers when she tells me: "If it wasn't for Practical Action I don't think I would be alive right now. I would be dead. I was very sick, but Practical Action took care of me, helped me find a job and stay in work and I feel very blessed.

"Sujan, the project worker, took me to the hospital and looked after me. He took me for the operation and when I opened my eyes and saw him, I was very happy. I used get scared about getting ill because I simply didn't know what would happen to my family. Practical Action has been like an extended family to me. It doesn't give money to me, but it has supported me and provided me with the things I need to be able to provide."

"With the help of the project, I can afford to pay rent and get healthcare. I don't know where we would be without it. Now I hope that in the future I will live to see Pushpa and my sons do well in life and look after me when I can longer look after them."

I am not affiliated with Practical Action and some minor aspects of Andy Heath's detailed, moving and observant report stick in my throat. It is a luxury and an expression of extreme privilege to shamelessly express clear physical repugnance at the conditions in which waste pickers must work. How insulting and humiliating it must have been for Kanchi, showing a well fed white man where she works every day, supporting an entire family, only to see him "turn away and retch" before writing his report and going back to his cosmopolitan and interesting life, where he witnesses the suffering of others and even alleviates some of it, without ever having to experience it himself. Kanchi and the other waste pickers do not have the time, energy or privilege to retch or turn away. They must strengthen their stomachs and do what they must, to survive, no matter how many others, Nepali or English, look down on their surroundings and are clearly repulsed and revolted by it and comment about how disgusting the conditions are once they've visited.

It is immature, too, to be grossed out by the reality of rubbish dumps. You can't visit a rubbish dump and then be repelled, and turn up your nose at it, and show your repugnance like some spoilt rich Victorian nursery school infant; it's called a rubbish dump because it's a pile of dumped rubbish, what did you think it would be like? Where do you think your used condoms and snotty tissues and little bottles of athlete's foot ointment go when you've thrown them away? America and Western Europe (and increasingly China) are the biggest producers of this kind of landfill rubbish. That is what it looks like. The stories of people like Kanchi should fill us with admiration for their fortitude and motivate us to help them proactively create and improve their lives; they should not fill us with pity and revulsion, prompting us to donate with a sense of Western arrogant superiority and self-regard so that 'we' see ourselves as 'saving' them from a reality which has been described in a repulsed and degrading way.

I am also bemused by the nauseating bigging-up of the organisation: "Enter Practical Action ....If it wasn't for Practical Action I don't think I would be alive right now ...I was very sick, but Practical Action took care of me ....Practical Action has been like an extended family to me." Yet no doubt Nepali waste pickers are thankful for any sustained support, as they pick through not only Nepalis' rubbish but hundreds of tonnes of white tourists' Himalaya trekking trash.

Still, I support PA's overall aims and project and their efforts to raise consciousness about the lives of Nepalese waste pickers. If you would like to donate to the organisation, please bear in mind the following estimations of where you money might go:

  • £14 could pay for school books and stationery for one child waste worker
  • £30 could provide healthcare for a year for a family of 4
  • £61 could buy a set of personal safety equipment for a waste worker

Think what the future might hold, with the unpatronising consideration and humane support of others, for a survivor like Kanchi and her grand-daughter Pushpa:

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow for the International Reporting Project. She reports on issues of global health and development.