RAGS TO... AB­JECT POVERTY

Rag­pick­ers, the un­sung green war­riors who col­lect and seg­re­gate plas­tic waste, are in dis­tress as an 18% GST on re­cy­cled plas­tic gran­ules has brought the in­dus­try to a stand­still. There are also fears that garbage col­lec­tion in cities may be badly hit

Sunday Express - - SUNDAY STORY - SV KRISHNA CHAITANYA @ Chen­nai

VI­JAY Ku­mar, 37, a rag­picker re­sid­ing in the vicin­ity of Ko­dun­gaiyur dump yard, was a busy man un­til July 1, when Union gov­ern­ment rolled out the Goods and Ser­vices Tax (GST). His lit­tle world be­gan falling apart as the trash that he col­lects for liv­ing be­came non-lu­cra­tive overnight.

Prior to GST, Ku­mar was earn­ing `10,000 on an av­er­age per month af­ter work­ing tire­lessly for 12 hours a day, scroung­ing for waste ma­te­ri­als in­side dump yards and across city lanes. Now, the same ef­forts are fetch­ing him `4,000. All be­cause the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment has in­cluded re­cy­cled plas­tic gran­ules, which are pro­duced from wastage, in the 18% tax bracket, eat­ing di­rectly into the in­come of rag­pick­ers.

For ex­am­ple, one kilo­gram of used milk pack­ets, which were sold for `20 at re­tail scrap cen­tre, are now be­ing sold for `10. Same is the case with all other plas­tic re­cy­cle waste. The rates have been cut by half. This may grow into a ma­jor dis­as­ter as many rag­pick­ers have stopped col­lect­ing waste and it will not take much time be­fore cities are star­ing at a ma­jor civic cri­sis. R Suresh, an­other rag­picker in Poona­mallee, says he has turned to man­ual scav­eng­ing. Same is the case with many. Rag­pick­ers ac­tu­ally com­ple­ment the work of civic bod­ies and are the real green war­riors, act­ing as a re­serve force that helps keep cities clean. De­spite per­form­ing a very use­ful so­cial ser­vice at great risk to their health and well-be­ing for lit­tle money, their con­tri­bu­tion to

Swachh Bharat is clearly be­ing un­der­mined.

“Why tax the scrap which is ly­ing as waste on the road and snatch our last meal?” asks San­thanamma, a mi­grant from Andhra Pradesh who once used to clean toi­lets in Chen­nai Cen­tral, be­fore set­tling down as a rag­picker. There are about 40 lakh rag­pick­ers in In­dia and 60,000 in Chen­nai alone, which gen­er­ates 5,000 tonnes of garbage per day. Of that waste, 400 tonnes (8%) are plas­tic. The rag­pick­ers, who sus­tain them­selves by col­lect­ing, sort­ing and seg­re­gat­ing waste, and then trad­ing it, clear 90% of this re­cy­clable waste, thereby con­tribut­ing im­mensely to­wards en­vi­ron­ment pro­tec­tion. This may not be the case hence­forth. As Ex­press tra­verses colonies abut­ting the Ko­dun­gaiyur and Pal­likaranai dump yards, where a ma­jor­ity of rag­pick­ers and plas­tic re­cy­cling units are con­cen­trated, the signs are omi­nous. The en­tire plas­tic re­cy­cling sup­ply chain, in­clud­ing rag­pick­ers, re­tail scrap col­lec­tors, whole­sale col­lec­tors, pro­cess­ing units and prod­uct man­u­fac­tur­ers, is in dis­tress. G Vaidyalingam, who has been in the plas­tic pro­cess­ing busi­ness for the past 17 years in Ko­dun­gaiyur, says the in­put from whole­sale scrap deal­ers has re­duced dras­ti­cally. “We used to process about 20 tonnes of plas­tic waste into chips per month and now it is 7 tonnes. I stopped even that since ev­ery­thing has to be billed now and the buy­ers are not ready to pay 18% GST. The lorry own­ers are also not willing to trans­port the ma­te­rial fear­ing po­lice checks. I am stock­ing `10 lakh worth of goods and un­til I sell this, I can’t even pur­chase fresh scrap.”

G Sankaran, pres­i­dent of the Tamil Nadu, Pondy Plas­tic As­so­ci­a­tion, told Ex­press that there are 8,000 reg­is­tered and 10,000 un­reg­is­tered plas­tic units in Tamil Nadu, gen­er­at­ing a rev­enue of about `2,000 crore. The in­dus­try pro­vides em­ploy­ment to two lakh per­sons di­rectly and four lakh in­di­rectly. On an av­er­age, 15 lakh tonnes of plas­tic is re­cy­cled in Tamil Nadu an­nu­ally, of which 6 lakh tonnes is con­sumed do­mes­ti­cally. The rest is ex­ported to other states in the form of chips and gran­ules. Now, ex­ports have com­pletely stopped as buy­ers have re­fused to pay 18% GST.

“This is the sec­tor that com­pli­ments the civic bod­ies in keep­ing the city clean. The re­cy­cled plas­tic gran­ules, which are pro­duced from wastage, were ex­empted from Cen­tral Ex­cise Duty. Only 5% VAT was im­posed. Now, we have 18% GST,” he said, re­quest­ing the Union gov­ern­ment to re­con­sider its de­ci­sion.

Ar­patharaj, a pet-bot­tle re­cy­cler in Ot­teri, says the sit­u­a­tion is very grim and if the stale­mate con­tin­ues, Chen­nai's roads would be filled with trash very soon. When con­tacted, Chen­nai Cor­po­ra­tion of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged that it was se­ri­ous prob­lem. “This in­for­mal sec­tor has def­i­nitely re- duces the bur­den on the civil body. Though all house­holds are re­quested to seg­re­gate waste at its source, it is sel­dom done. Rag­pick­ers are the ones who do the job,” the of­fi­cial says, on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

State En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter KC Karup­panan told Ex­press that the gov­ern­ment was aware of the im­pend­ing cri­sis and had al­ready writ­ten to the Union gov­ern­ment and GST coun­cil to ei­ther ex­empt plas­tic scrap or bring it to 5%, like ear­lier. Sources in the Union Com­merce Min­istry said the gov­ern­ment had re­ceived re­quests seek­ing ex­emp­tions on sev­eral prod­ucts which have a di­rect bear­ing on the lower and the mid­dle class. “The gov­ern­ment is pos­i­tively look­ing at the re­quests,” a se­nior of­fi­cial in the min­istry said.

Man­mo­han Cha­van, pres­i­dent of the Delhi Scrap Deal­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, says that there was no tax on the busi­ness be­fore in Delhi and Ker­ala. “In the ab­sence of re­cy­cled plas­tic, poor peo­ple will be forced to use vir­gin plas­tic. We have met Fi­nance Min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley and Com­merce Min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man, but there has been no re­sponse. In Delhi alone, there are five lakh rag­pick­ers.”

We used to process about 20 tonnes of plas­tic waste into chips per month and now it is 7 tonnes. I stopped even that since ev­ery­thing has to be billed now and the buy­ers are not ready to pay 18% GST. G Vaidyalingam, who runs a plas­tic pro­cess­ing busi­ness

SHIBA PRASAD SAHU

A worker walks amid bags of un­sold plas­tic scrap at a re­cy­cling plant in Chen­nai on Satur­day. Deal­ers say many buy­ers are not willing to pay GST, and prof­its have come down alarm­ingly |

SHIBA PRASAD SAHU

A worker seg­re­gates waste at a plas­tic re­cy­cling plant in Choolai |

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