Recently, the Delhi high court ruled in favour of Mahavir Singh. The petitioner filed a PIL claiming the area between Nangloi and Bahadurgarh in northwest Delhi hosts a number of "polluting" and "non-conforming" industries, including plastic recycling units. The court instructed the Delhi government to act immediately, in accordance with the Supreme Court industrial relocation order of 1999-2000, which also ruled in favour of the petitioner (M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India and Others, Writ Petition No. 4677 of 1985). No doubt the act of recycling is unpleasant, involving as it does plastic waste, its manual segregation into pure polymer types and basic technology. Research suggests only a subset might be harmful to the vicinity, however. Judging by the sealing of 2000-2001, the official charged with surveying thousands of units to decide which to padlock is unlikely to be unduly bothered about whether a particular one falls in 'polluting' Groups B to G, or the "highly polluting" H category of the 2001 Delhi Master Plan, or MPD 2001. For example, if I deal in dyes for plastic moulding, I fall in Group C; conduit pipes, Group E; and plastic-related chemical industries, Group H. Greasing the surveyor's palm might aid in determining whether I am consigned to an actionable category — subjective, due to revised classifications and different categories targeted in each sealing drive. There is no avenue for appeal in case of wrongful closure.
Then there is the question of what is to be done, once a unit's pedigree is decided (Group B to G to relocate to "conforming" areas within the Delhi National Capital Territory, or NCT; Group H to relocate outside the NCT but within the National Capital Region). MPD 2001 designates 28 industrial estates as "conforming", including Mangolpuri and Najafgarh, which are in the neighbourhood of Mundka. As an informal plastic recycler, I might be confused about where in the city the lakshman rekha of "conforming" is drawn. I might also be tired of being displaced from the centre to the periphery, in accordance with changing definitions within a fast-growing urban agglomeration. In the 1970s, the market was located in Karol Bagh and Punjabi Bagh; in 1981, the Delhi government and the DDA moved it out to Jwalapuri; in 1995, they banned work in that neighbourhood, and the DDA allocated land far out in Tikre Kalan, taking bribes to assign actual plots. Since no provision was made for water and electricity — and 15 years on, there is still no provision — the market settled itself midway. The High Court ruling now brands Tikre Kalan "non-conforming". If even the DDA gets it wrong, surely the individual recycler cannot be held responsible.
The ruling will, on conservative estimates, put 100,000 people out of work in the informal plastic recycling industry alone. This is a group who make a living dealing with the 30 per cent of waste produced by middle-class consumption that remains uncollected for disposal by the municipality. They recycle 60-80 per cent of post-consumer plastic waste generated within India, the highest rate in the world. The economic and political power gained through numerical hegemony of this market is used to overcome the social stigma of being Dalit and engaging in work that is ritually polluting. To now be told that it is environmentally polluting is perplexing, is it not? After all, they are promoting Schall's famous green ranking of reuse, recycle, energy recovery and disposal! Findings from a small household survey conducted in the surrounding slums suggest none of the categories of informal recycling labour, not even pickers, fall below the narrow official state poverty line for Delhi, and therefore, despite manifest deprivation, do not qualify for BPL status and handouts from the state. It is in this context that they must rely on the market to support themselves, like the 93 per cent of India's labour force toiling in other informal industries. I hope the bench did not mistake "informal" for "polluting" and "non-conforming". After all, the Arjun Sengupta Committee shows we are relying on this sector for employment and poverty alleviation for now. The PIL came into being in order to allow poor people to petition the court. All environmental jurisprudence in our country stems from liberal interpretations of the right to life and the right to personal liberty bestowed by Article 21 of the Constitution. In this case, I fervently hope the high court bench asked itself: what of the right to work, and by extension, the right to not be poor? NREGA confers statutory rights and is a landmark step, but only in the rural sphere. Was the bench privy to detailed research findings of the kind outlined, and exposed to more than the petitioner's sole view, in arriving at 'public interest' and not 'private inclination' litigation? I hope so, because I want to live in democratic Delhi, with rights for all its citizens, and not autocratic Beijing, with its brutally contrived aesthetic of a first world city.