Sarah Rooney and Nayan Pokhrel (Fixer)

Rajkumar is in the backyard of a popular bar, sorting through rubbish. He comes here every few weeks to collect empty booze bottles and any other recyclable material. Today, there are five or six old posters – alcohol advertisements – that he can shred, reselling both the sheet on which the poster was printed and the aluminum frame. He adds to his haul a few used cardboard boxes and an old neon sign for Yeti Airlines.

With great precision, Rajkumar loads everything onto his bicycle using tarpaulin sacks, a rubber inner tube, and an artfully arranged web of raffia string. The trick to making money from this kind of work, he explains, is to build volume and weight when you go out collecting so that every trip counts. After some 12 years of practice he is now able to transport up to 200 kilograms on the back of his rickety bicycle.

The Kathmandu Valley, with its three closely connected cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, generates almost 1,000 tons of solid waste each day. Over 60% of this waste is organic. Much of the rest – paper, plastic, glass, metal, cloth – can be recycled. If it isn’t destined for the compost heap or the informal landfills along the sewage-clogged Bagmati River, Rajkumar will have his sights set on it.

Rajkumar, scrap collector

The city is filled with opportunity

“I couldn’t afford to live in the village,” says Rajkumar, who left his home in a southern border district when he was 15 years old. “My parents were getting old and I needed to be earning money to look after them. There, the only option I had was to work on the farm and that was unrealistic – our fields are too small to support the family.”

So, at the age of 15, Rajkumar left the village and travelled to Kathmandu, where one of his brothers was already working as a scrap collector. “It was exciting,” he says. “I was thrilled to be in the big city and I was particularly excited by the idea of actually being able to make money. It felt to me like the city was filled with opportunity.”

Rajkumar, who already spoke the three languages used in his home region (Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Hindi), quickly picked up Nepali when he began working in the city but there have still been unexpected hurdles. As a Madhesi migrant from the southern plains, Indian-looking features often elicit racist slurs. “People call me names and talk down to me,” he says. “It’s not like that in the village but it’s the way it is here in the city.”

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Days and nights at the scrapyard

The scrapyard where Rajkumar lives and works is a Dickensian setting, piled high with the flotsam and jetsam of city life – disused air-conditioning vents, old metal fences, rusted pipes, broken stools, cans, bottles, and endless coils of wire. The collectors, including Rajkumar, sleep in a dormitory shack rigged up above the yard amid a messy tangle of well-worn mattresses and filthy sheets.

When Rajkumar returns with the recyclable material he collected at the bar, a team from the paper recycling plant is busy weighing up an enormous cache of newspapers, magazines and school textbooks covered in childish scrawl – the accumulated gleanings of the yard’s scrap collectors. Impressed, Rajkumar points out that the labourers from the plant can carry up to 125 kilograms on their heads.

Rajkumar had hoped he would make about 200 rupees (just over US$2) for the scrap he lugged back from the bar but the scrapyard owner tallied the proceeds at half that amount. “If I’m really lucky, I sometimes make up to 1,000 rupees (approx. US$10) a day but it all depends because some days there just isn’t any scrap material around no matter how hard I look,” says Rajkumar.

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“You need a strong voice and plenty of stamina.”

Each day, Rajkumar leaves the scrapyard just after dawn to begin his rounds. He tries to stay within a one-kilometre radius of the yard so that he can easily return to offload his bicycle. Every few metres, he bellows a call familiar throughout Nepal’s urban areas: “Scraaaaap…! Metaaaaals…! Plaaaaastic…!”

Each time he returns to the yard, the results of his round are sorted, weighed, and logged by the scrapyard owner. Ideally, he tries to find regular clients he can visit every few weeks like the bar or other venues that have large amounts of recyclable waste such as restaurants or printing presses. “To be good at this job, you need a strong voice and lots of stamina,” says Rajkumar, whose working hours are often longer than 12 hours a day. “Everyday, I finish up exhausted – my body aches and my throat hurts from calling out for materials. But, I have three daughters, what else can I do?”

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The motivating power of multiple dowry payments

Rajkumar’s three daughters are still young but he knows that, if they are to marry well, he needs to save up for their dowries (which would currently be around US$1,500-2,000 each, but will be even higher by the time his girls come of age). “My life is dictated by this inevitability,” he says. “I have to save enough money to ensure my three girls can be married.”

Every few months Rajkumar makes the six-hour journey back to his village to visit his family and work on the farm. He talks of maybe one day buying more land in the village so that he and his wife can start a vegetable business. But, at the moment, he doesn’t make enough money to put any aside for dowries or business investments – all his earnings go to support his family and he has no bank account or savings.

Rajkumar, who chats with his wife most days by telephone, recently learned she might be pregnant again. He is hoping the child will be a boy so that he won’t have to take on the burden of another dowry. “But this is out of my hands now,” he says, with a fateful smile. “The gods will decide.”

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This article is part of our ongoing series Tales from the Himalaya: Urban Lives in Kathmandu

Photos by Nic Dunlop for Asia Dialogue

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Categories: Informality, Livelihoods, Waste and Recycling