Life in Waste

Dhapa is a locality on the eastern fringes of Kolkata, the only waste dumping ground in the city. The area consisting of landfill sites where the solid waste produced in the city is dumped; covering over 60 acres of land, started operations in 1987 originally built with the capacity to accommodate city’s wastes for 15 years. Dhapa has long outlived its efficacy. Yet 5,372 tons of municipal solid waste is dumped here everyday through 500 trucks.

This mountain of garbage happens to be home of a community of people. Ignored by the rest of the civilization they find their livelihood in the trash, forgotten and forsaken. A large section of these people have been evicted and displaced from home and livelihood. They have relocated to the low-cost slums of Dhapa. Thousands of families’ survival depends on this waste dumping ground, as they earn their livelihood by picking rags, sorting out wastes, working in the recycling factories & tanneries and variety of other low-paying, unskilled jobs. They work in a hazardous condition and live in environment so toxic that it is beyond what is generally considered as a nightmare. Population of Dhapa represents an extremely vulnerable and high-risk section of society by virtue of its acute poverty, low levels of education, abysmal state of awareness, substance abuse and the threat posed by the entire gamut of diseases. 

‘Precious’, a rather obvious word one could say, yet it remains a very hard one to describe. What is precious anyway? Something important, something valued. Something does not have to have a materialistic value to be precious to someone. Even a piece of junk made out of plastic or metal which once was shiny and new can be precious to someone. Little things that were once a part of a rich household; but as time passed they lost their usefulness. They are thought to be so valueless that they end up in the waste-dumping yard. But for the kids, who live in the shacks beside the dumping yard, best known as child waste pickers, it’s a different story. In midst of tons of rotting garbage, where the smell in the air reminds somebody of a nasty nightmare; these kids conduct their treasure hunt. Sometimes they anxiously awaits their parents return from work, they spend moments in anticipation about what they are going to find today. And at last when they finally unveil the treasure no matter how insignificant, how unimportant the object is to the rest of world, their eyes reflect divine happiness and gratitude. All the dents, stains and missing parts do not diminish the appeal of their precious treasure. To them its beauty and appeal is divine regardless it’s just a piece of junk somebody threw away. Somebody who used to own it found it so useless that it was thrown into the garbage. But to the kids it is a divine blessing, an object of desire; to them it is a precious treasure. They take it in their hands, clutch it and cherish it as a divine blessing, an object of desire; to them it is a precious treasure.

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My initial intention was just portraying the place and the people through my photographs. Then a question changed it all; a question by a waste picker dwelling in the slum. He asked me “What have you civilized people given us except for this mountain of garbage?” The man was right. These people live on trash the city throws away. His words moved me. I wanted to do something for these people. But I had nothing to give them except for the photos I took of them. I planned to gift them the photos. I knew that it might give them a little bit of happiness and it did so but I never thought, these photographs would also bring out stories that have never been told before; stories heartfelt and honest. I found a new way of telling their stories using the photographs. I started showing them the photographs to let them share their own stories and covering the whole thing in form of video footages.



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