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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 38, New Delhi, Sept 4, 2021

Impact of Lockdown Measures taken During Covid 19 Pandemic on the Livelihood of Ragpickers: A Case Study in Surat | Vimal Trivedi

Friday 3 September 2021


by Vimal Trivedi*


In this research paper, I tried to explore the impact of lockdown measures imposed during the Covid pandemic on the less privileged rag pickers’ community in Surat city. The survey indicates that lockdown measures raised many questions particularly on the response system to ensure ration for the rag pickers. The survey conducted between November 2020 and January 2021 revealed that rag pickers were not in a position to access any relief measures during the first phase of lockdown. In this phase of lockdown, free grains were distributed through recognised fair price shops by state government to ration card holders. In the second phase of lockdown half of the survey respondents reported that they received dry ration through fair price shops. The study outcome also shows that 53% rag pickers affirmed that they received groceries kit from NGO time to time and also admitted to having received cash. In fact residents of the housing societies, citizens’ groups and some charitable trusts came forward spontaneously and started campaign and distributed cooked food to people who were not getting rations till the second extension of lockdown. However during the second extension of the lockdown the response of the state government and urban local body toward the marginalized communities was quite satisfactory. The outcome of the study finds that those who are associated with the NGO, for them situation has improved once lockdown lifted. However they are exposed to contaminated waste while collecting disposal of infectious medical waste from the dump site. In spite of the guidelines during pandemic it is common practice that large quantity of medical waste generated by residents being disposed of as part of household waste, which means it will likely end up at the local dumpsite. The field data also shows that almost 87% rag pickers said that they were not beaten by police and some of them even praised the performance of the police during the lockdown. On the whole the survey shows that the low-income communities like rag pickers have been facing significant challenges because of the implementation of lockdown measures due to pandemic.

Keywords: # Pandemic# Rag pickers # Livelihood# Lockdown impact # Poverty


The incidence of Covid 19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures led to many economic activities to slow down around the globe and have disproportionately affected marginalized communities in terms of loss of livelihood and lack of food. India is no exception, and a very large number of poor people, particularly daily wage workers and domestic workers relying on irregular sources of income, faced social and economic hardship during the lockdown. The imposition of a two-month lockdown during the first phase by the government to prevent the rise in Covid cases had severely hit these urban poor. Urban poverty is inextricably linked with recycling waste. Recyclable waste picking is one of the most accessible means of livelihood for the urban poor. The informal economy of recyclable waste has many stakeholders in its value chain. The ragpickers, itinerant buyers, small and large waste dealers, recycle industries etc., are the stakeholders of the recyclable waste. Ragpickers, considered the poorest of the poor who collect recyclable waste for their livelihood, have been the most adversely affected. The term ragpicker is defining in the revised Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 as ’A person or groups of persons informally engaged in collection and recovery of reusable and recyclable solid waste from the source of waste generation the streets, bins, material recovery facilities, processing and waste disposal facilities for sale to recyclers directly or through intermediaries to earn their livelihood (Reddy, 2018). There are an estimated 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India, who pick up, clean, sort and segregate recyclable waste and sell it further up the value chain (to scrap dealers) to make a living (Dandapani, 2017). Many of them are women, probably migrants, who work under miserable conditions without social and health benefits from the government.

The ministry of urban development launched a program in 2016 called "Swachh Bharat Mission" and prepared a manual for SWM [1]. In that manual, they pointed out that the informal sector plays a vital role in the SWM value chain by recovering valuable material from waste. It includes both the "kabadi" system or scrap dealers and waste pickers that help reduce environmental impacts by improving resource recovery and reducing waste quantities for disposal. Referring to the crucial role of waste pickers in SWM, Isa Baud and Hans Schenk (1994) stated that the lowest level within the informal sector consisted of various groups of people who collect waste and make the first selection of materials sell it to buyers (scrap dealers). Another author described in his article that "most often because of lack of understanding of the informal recycling sector; policymakers unable to understand the critical role of the various interrelated value chain of the informal sector and the quantum of their work" (Ramchandran,2012). Their involvement in the waste collection may also categorize waste pickers of the informal recycling sector. Broadly there are two types of waste collectors; the first type is the waste-pickers (rag pickers); more than 90% were women. They picked recyclable waste from the disposal site or roadside. The second category type was itinerant buyers generally known as "Dabba-Batliwala", who purchase scrap directly from households and shops. Further Gill (2010) described that itinerant waste buyers are given money in advance by their dealers to buy scrap daily to retain their loyalty and ensure that the supply of raw material is maintained.

According to clean and healthy urban environment perspectives, itinerant buyers and rag pickers play a pivotal role in recycling and reducing municipal solid waste. Still, unfortunately, their contributions to more extensive waste handling systems are invisible and therefore not recognised. This is further explained in manual for SWM that "there is a significant thrust in various national and state level policies to recognise, identify, and integrate informal sector workers into formal waste management processes and initiatives. Creation of livelihoods, social acceptance, and security for informal sector workers and regularising the recycling sector are all benefits of integrating the informal sector. This may be done effectively by organising them into self-help groups (SHGs) or cooperatives, to capacitate them to work as entrepreneurs in a business entity. In the future, they may own small recycling facilities which are managed scientifically and hygienically [1].

The outcome of the CAG report (2007) also pointed out that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had not appropriately addressed the role of the informal sector in handling waste [2]. Only 17 per cent of the sampled states include Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Punjab, had recognized the role of ragpickers. The report further noted that "MoEF had not recognized the role of ragpickers in recycling and reducing municipal solid waste formally by an Act/ legislation". Thus, any kind of legal protection was not envisaged for them. Bhaskar and ChikarmaneIn (1995) cited that a high-powered committee was set up by the Planning Commission to suggest reforms in waste management, considering the legal aspects. They further stated that "In the long run, it might be worthwhile to organize ragpickers’ cooperatives, so that besides getting a fair wage for their work, they can benefit from the non-formal education and learn skills that will be of use as they grow older". Even in January 1998, after several hearings, the Supreme Court of India constituted a committee under the chairmanship of Mr Asim Barman, which had proposed the cooperative model referred by the high power committee for all the cities in the country. The idea of developing the concept of a ragpickers’ cooperative is worth it but, these recommendations remained primarily on paper as urban civic bodies and the State failed to put them into operation.

To improve the lives of ragpickers through welfare program many non-government organizations like Chintan in Delhi, SWaCH in Pune, Navsarjan in Surat, Purani trust in Rajkot has been working. In Pune, both Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), an organization of waste-pickers and more than 3500 waste pickers registered itself as ’SWACH’ (Solid waste collection and handling) - a cooperative of self-employed waste-pickers collect recyclable materials that amount to 22% of municipal solid waste daily and save Rs.15 cores per annum as waste handling and transportation as per the Pune municipal corporation [3]. In Ahmedabad, ragpickers, predominantly women, have opened a cooperative bank for themselves with the help of an NGO. In Rajkot, a Purani trust has given the name ’Raj-Dipika’ to rag-picking women and given identity cards to collect dry waste from schools, colleges, hospitals, offices, and even households to generate their livelihood. But later, there is no information available about the scheme. (Trivedi, 2019). In Surat, Navsarjan, a local NGO, formed an organization with more than 70 women ragpickers displaced from Maharashtra. The Rag-pickers’ association was established in 1997 for saving and access credit through women’s saving and credit cooperative. The association was initiated to help the ragpicker women from the exploitation of the traders involved with waste businesses. However due to implementation of door to door (d2d) waste collection program, the number has reduced to just 16 women.

Although NGOs provide help, many rag pickers in Surat city live either on the pavements or under the flyover or in unhygienic shanties and disease-infested slums. Even they have minimal access to essential services, and their living conditions are miserable (Trivedi, 2019). A 2006 study by CSS found that after implementing the d2d garbage collection program in Surat, there was a decreasing pattern of income among the ragpickers. The study shows that almost 70% of the ragpickers have lost nearly 50% of their income after implementing Surat’s d2d garbage collection program (Patel & Trivedi: 2006).


The imposition of two months lockdown by the government to control the spread of the virus had severely affected Surat city’s ragpickers. The uncertain incomes from the recycled waste and the loss of even that tiny amount in lockdown increased their hardship. Several research papers were published on the impact of lockdown on the livelihood of ragpickers. One study was undertaken in Bangalore, evidence that once the lockdown was announced in Bangalore, thousands of waste pickers’ families were on the verge of starvation due to loss of their regular source of income (Shafi, 2020). The study further noted that even lockdown lifted the waste pickers are out of work because there will be very little demand for scrap and other solid wastes due to the slowing of economic activity. In the case of Delhi, Chaturvedi (2020) noted that waste pickers wouldn’t get to sell the recyclables they collect, leaving them without significant incomes. Even those who work at landfills, or operate in dumpsters and other informal spaces, are entirely jobless.

On the one hand, they couldn’t collect recyclable waste, and on the other hand, the scrap dealers’ shops were also shut down. Immediately after the lockdown was imposed, the state government announced that they would provide food items like wheat, rice, pulses, sugar, etc., free of cost to around 60 lakh ration card holding families through fair price shops. With the government initiatives, various citizen groups have also started community kitchens and distributed cook food during the lockdown period. Some "food rights campaigners" also joined spontaneously and started a campaign and provided cook meals to low-income families in a slum and homeless who could not access government relief.

In Surat, twenty thousand women have joined the ’roti campaign’ initiated by a city-based NGO to feed the hungry in the city. However, once the government lifted the lockdown, the entire community kitchens program got discontinued, and the ragpickers’ situation was uncertain. In these contexts, this paper highlights various welfare programmes initiated by the government and citizen groups and the difficulties ragpickers faced during the lockdown in Surat city. The study also tried to understand the impact on their daily earnings and livelihood after the lockdown is lifted? And how they benefited from the relief measure? The survey was conducted between November 2020 and January 2021. This quick survey tried to understand the impact of lockdown on ragpickers and how local government will play a role in their food security during the loss of livelihoods. This study will help understand how the municipal authorities have taken initiatives to start various welfare programmes to improve the living conditions of vulnerable communities. This article tries to focus on why relief measures did not reach them.

Study design

This is a cross-sectional study based on a survey designed specifically to gather data on the kind of difficulties faced by the ragpickers during the pandemic lockdown period. The primary criterion for drawing a sample for the study was their availability where we can locate them. Snowball sampling was used to select the ragpickers while collecting the waste from the actual operational spots like garbage transfer stations, roadside etc. Finally, the survey respondents consisted of 60ragpickers. In Surat city, there are three categories of ragpickers, one associated with local non-government organization Navasarjan, the second category those who work independently and the third who works for scrap dealers. To better represent these three categories in the sample, the author tried to replicate all these three categories. The author also attempted to capture the insights of the situation through informal meetings with ragpickers and the scrap dealers. A survey interview schedule was developed and field-tested. This rapid survey of sixty ragpickers was basically to understand the impact of the pandemic on their livelihood. The findings in this paper are based on the survey data collected through an interview schedule.

Demographic Profile of the Respondents

The study’s findings show that 78% of ragpickers reported working in this occupation for the last ten years and more, and they worked on an average of 10 hours per day. The data reveals that the ragpickers mean age is 51 years. An analysis of data for a gender-wise distribution of the ragpickers shows that out of the 60 respondents, 72% are girls/women, and 85% are illiterate. The remaining ragpickers reported that they could read/write or have studied up to primary education. The study observed that education is low on the list of priorities among ragpickers. Many respondents confessed during the informal meetings that they couldn’t afford to educate their children due to their profession. Studies also revealed that the girl child in the family generally drops out of school for safety and to help in cooking for the family and sorting the recyclable materials. The distribution of caste shows that 98.4% are from lower strata. The distribution of the respondents by family size shows that 60% of respondents have their family size below four, and a further 24% reported their family size as between 5 and 6. The study’s findings indicate that 82% of respondents live in slums, and the remaining 18% of ragpickers reside on footpaths, under the flyover, etc.

The ragpicker’s monthly family income depends on the type of recyclable material, sale price, and quality. The rate of the recyclable material also fluctuates depending on the season, market demand etc. The survey data reveals that 45% of the respondents have a family income of Rs. 1001 to Rs. 3000 per month, which is insufficient to run a family. Also, 22 % reported their family income between Rs. 3001 and Rs. 5000 per month. The study’s findings show that the average monthly family income of ragpickers is Rs. 4100. As far as the selling of waste is concerned, two types of patterns are reported in the study. Observations deduce that around 53% of ragpickers associated with the NGO hand over their recyclable materials to a cooperative scrap shop run by the women ragpickers association, while the remaining respondents sell it to waste material dealers. The survey findings show that ragpickers associated with the NGO and handover to the cooperative shop get a reliable rate. A comparison of the income of these two groups reveals that the average monthly income of the respondents who sell to cooperative shops, mainly women is about Rs. 4818, while those who deal with the private waste material dealer are Rs. 3489. The survey data shows that there is a significant average income gap between type 1 and type 2. It means type 1 get adequate wages for their waste collection and labour put in. Our field experience indicates that scrap dealer mentality exploits type two in terms of an unfair deal and paying fewer prices for recyclable materials.

Results and Discussion

The present study has highlighted the livelihood problems and the hardship faced by the ragpickers during the lockdown. Given the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown measures, the Centre has advised all states to issue ration cards under the National Food Security Act 2013 to vulnerable people like the homeless, ragpickers, and labourers to access free access grains under various schemes in force [4]. But our data analysis indicates that only half of the ragpickers received free grains through recognized fair price shops. The study outcome shows that thirty-two respondents, i.e. 53% affirmed that they received groceries kits from NGOs from time to time and also admitted having received cash. Out of thirty-two respondents, almost 24 (75%) associated with the NGO admitted having a dry ration under the fair price shop. Out of 28 reported samples, those not associated with the NGO, only 3 respondents reported receiving cash during the lockdown, a massive shock to livelihoods and wage earnings. Around 13 out of 28 ragpickers receive help from the citizen’s groups, mainly the dry ration. The data analysis indicates that the people associated with the NGOs have improved their situation once the lockdown lifted. However, they are exposed to contaminated waste while collecting infectious medical waste from the dumpsite. Despite the guidelines during the pandemic, it is common practice that large quantity of medical waste generated by residents being disposed of as part of household waste, which means it will likely end up at the local dumpsite. Surat’s local urban body needs to follow the Pune Co-operative model, where the ragpickers cooperative SWACH is educating the public in pandemics on how to support the waste workers and advocate with the city to amend waste disposal protocols.

Our study also reported that some rag pickers, particularly those staying near the dumping site, said that they were not allowed to collect waste from the dumping site. As a result, there is a significant loss even after the lockdown was lifted. Before the lockdown, sizable ragpickers reported earning around ₹200 to ₹300 per day, but 58% of ragpickers reported that their income reduced to almost 50% of their earlier income during post lockdown period. There are many reasons behind this situation. As per the scrap dealer, one reason is that domestic workers or private sweepers usually separate the recyclable materials from the household garbage and sell them to the scrap dealer. Secondly, they are paid lesser than the earlier rate from the dealer because of less demand from the big scrap dealer. However, those who are associated with the NGO seem not to be much affected. For example, one of the ragpickers associated with the NGO and lives in a slum. During the lockdown period, she could not collect, but she hardly faced difficulty for the livelihood because of her association with trust.

During the lockdown, trusts distributed rations, medical services and also transferred Rs. 2000 to their account. She reported that she earned Rs. 8000 per month. She said that because of her association with the NGOs, she could receive help; otherwise, she would have been dead of hunger. But in the case of those who are not associated with any NGO, the situation is altogether different. Although we attempted to ask about the welfare programmes, one of the respondents, Harun, said that he could not go and collect waste since lockdown. He didn’t have savings left and, he didn’t know how his family could survive without any help from the government. When the lockdown was in place, he received cooked food packets from citizens/ police, but it stopped once the lockdown was lifted, and he slept without a meal. Like Harun, many ragpickers slept without a meal at least once a week; it’s quite a significant number.

The study’s outcome indicated a significant amount of income loss for the ragpickers once lockdown was lifted. But one of the ragpickers associated with the Navsarjan Trust said that more than 70 women are associated with the trust, and the buyer both decide the rates, so they received a fair price. They are satisfied with the help extended by the NGO. In Surat, Navsarjan Trust ensured that retailers do not cheat the ragpickers and get the right price for the scrap they collect and sell. However, a large section of ragpickers like Kishan Patil not received fair prices from the buyers. Like Kishan, we were told in our meeting that "when many neighbours in the slum desperate to return to their native place, they were not interested because they want to start working once everything will become normal. In our survey, very few of them (7%) make their way to their native village. In our study, almost 87% of respondents said that police did not beat them, and instead, some even praised the police’s performance during the lockdown period. A majority (92%) of the respondents are aware of the government-imposed lockdown. Around 77% of them were worried about the impacts of the coronavirus on their families.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Rag pickers and itinerant buyers are key players in the overall sustainable waste management programme, and their work being entirely informal, lacking any employment benefits. But at the same time, their participation in SWM is remarkable as far as the recycling of waste is concerned. Our field experience also shows that the pandemic crisis badly affected a large proportion of this vulnerable group. The author met many ragpickers who live and work in the landfill site of Surat. The study outcomes noted the occupational health problems they face but were not protected by occupational health and safety measures. They are not covered by social security schemes that provide health protection. However, in our survey, not a single Covid positive case was reported in the sample respondents. The study outcome indicates that lockdown measures raised many questions like the response system of the State to ensure food grain for the hungry and much-marginalized community like ragpickers.

There are several lapses and limitations reported in the field. Some of the major points from the field experiences need to be addressed. The local civic body has not distributed the cooked food under the state relief program on the first phase of lockdown. Eventually, the dry ration is of no use for those who are homeless. Residents of the housing society, citizens groups and some charitable trust came forward spontaneously and provided food and expanding the state capacity. However, in the second extension of the lockdown, the response from the state government and the civic body to the beneficiaries was entirely satisfactory. Still, in the case of ragpickers, they were not availing any of the benefits that the State has declared. The state government has transferred the money to the deprived section of society, but the survey analysis results show that more than 90% of ragpickers did not get cash. Instead, the survey data revealed that 53% of ragpickers reported that NGOs was transferring funds to help them during the lockdown. It is quite possible that they may not even have a Jan Dhan account needed to get the cash benefit. Here the state and the civic body needs to explore some alternative measure for these sections of people. For example, in Surat, the local urban body needs to examine their networks like Urban Community Centre and the welfare program like National Urban Livelihood Mission Yojna to deliver meals and other necessary support to vulnerable people. In Surat, Public Distribution System is wide and reachable for the poor for distributing food grains. In this lockdown period, the government has to use these systems for those who don’t have enough documents.

The key approach to integrate waste pickers into sustainable waste management would be source segregation. Even the SWM Rules, 2016 mentioned that the local civic body has to establish ragpickers’ cooperatives, implement source segregation, and ensure a separate mechanism for collecting recycling waste through ragpickers’ cooperative to get a fair wage for their work. This is a very important aspect of SWM rules 2016 because citizens that even though they segregate dry and wet waste at home, contractors of d2d garbage collection eventually mix them. So the question is, why not the civic body force the d2d contractor to collect only wet waste? If the contractors of d2d collect only wet waste, then citizens segregate at source and recyclable waste hand over to the ragpickers’ cooperatives. The discussion in this article concludes that there is an urgent need to implement revised SWM rules 2016. The local civic body needs to look after these deprived people and provide them food security, health, and shelter. The revised rules have mandated the source segregation of waste to integrate ragpickers and itinerant buyers and facilitate the formation of self-help groups of the waste pickers.


Bhaskar, A. & Chikarmane, P. (2012). The Story of Waste and its Reclaimers: Organising Waste Collectors for BetterLives and Livelihoods. Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 55 (4)

Chadha, K. (2020). Informal Waste Workers: The Issue of Formalization. (Accessed on July 4, 2021.)

Chaturvedi, B. (2020). The COVID-19 Impact on Waste Pickers in Delhi, June 18, 2020, (Accessed on July 27, 2021)

Dandapani, Swetha. (2017). Unpaid and undervalued, how India’s waste pickers fight apathy to keep our cities clean. . November 30, 2017. (Accessed on July 16, 2021)

Gill, K. (2010). Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Isa, Baud. & Hans, Schenk. (1994). "Solid Waste Management: Modes, Assessments, Appraisals and Linkages in Bangalore", New Delhi, Manohar Publishers.

Patel, A. and Trivedi, V. (2005). Solid Waste Management- Mid Term Assessment of Door to Door Garbage (DDGC) Collection Program in Three Zones of Surat city. Surat: Centre for Social Studies. (mimeo).

Shubhangi, P. & Gupta, S. (2021). The State of Informal Waste Workers in India Ramachandran, S. (2012). ’Waste management neglects ragpickers’, New Delhi: The Hindu, August 16 on, Accessed on June 30, 2021.

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Internet source

[1] Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO), Ministry of Urban Development (2016). Swachh Bharat Mission Solid Waste Management, Part II: The manual. Page 7 (Accessed on August 9, 2021)

[2] The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report no. PA 14.(2008). Page 33. (Accessed on July 30, 2021)

[3]Pune Municipal Corporation (Accessed on July 26, 2021)

[4] Haq, Z. (2021). June 03, 2021. (Accessed on August 9, 2021)

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