You can throw it away and forget about it. Maybe you’ll recycle it. You’ll see someone throw a plastic cup out the car window and wonder about her/his character. You notice trash in a park and sometimes you pick it up for disposal. You see someone going through a dumpster and recoil just a tiny bit.
Streets are pretty clean in Delhi as big cities go, but not all the trash is carried away in large trucks. However, private contractors are taking away a big source of revenue from the poorest of the poor: the waste pickers. You might have seen them going through dumpsters or picking up trash alongside roads and buildings. It’s not food they’re after, though a piece of fruit might be a bonus. They’re looking for recyclables like plastic, cardboard, clothing, fabric and metal. They are not beggars or thieves—they are simply trying to eke out a living on the margins of society.
Not exactly number one on most tourist itineraries are the dumps out on the fringes of Delhi. Shashi Dhushan Pandit is an activist who could see the exploitation of poor people. Loans of 100 rupees would be charged 10 rupees per day in interest. Temples would acquire land needed by peasants. Shashi became a well educated activist at a very basic, grassroots level.
He escorted us to Pua, an hour’s bus ride, where dozens of people, dogs, and flies live among piles of trash. There is an order here—plastics, cardboard, metal in separate piles. Bicycle carts bring in new loads for the people to pick through and sort. Since it rained the night before our visit, the ground was muddy and slippery. Not many outsiders take an interest in this work. We were met with a half dozen men who protected us from any harassment or problem. Some of them offered a hand to help us through the mud.
At the site, someone had written in chalk, in English, “WELLCOME.” Several tarps had been carefully laid out in a clearing, upon which a ring of matching chairs awaited our arrival. Shashi spoke to us with passion. We didn’t need to understand Hindi to be able to get the gist of what he said. He and his people will not give up until their needs are addressed. He and others are already educating multiple sectors of waste pickers about services available and how to practice democracy. (Like IAF/community organizing groups in the U.S.), they learn how to stand up for their rights as human beings. Another level of education is about the nature and advantages of unions. One difficulty in forming a union is that the workers must name their employer. Yet who employs them? Everyone!
The Indian government has special economic zones (aka “exploitation zones”) in which the state acquires land cheaply (often from peasant farmers) and resell it cheaply to industry. The construction of a nearby temple with mostly non-Indian money displaced 20 thousand people. A new 5-star hotel is going up next to this waste operation so the ones we met are already looking for another place to go.
A few notes help explain the pictures: Vivha teaches and her husband Manoj assists, though he also works as a waste picker and an activist. Classes are normally held outside for about 70 children, but since it rained the previous day, they used the small classroom and fewer were in attendance. There is a wide age range, from toddlers to about 12 years old. Vivha has a high school education and very few teaching materials, but she teaches reading and writing in Hindi and English (at least), about days, weeks, seasons, numbers—all the basics. I recorded one girl’s recitation when Vivha called on her. Vivha would love to offer a midday meal to the children for the nutrition, certainly, but also as an incentive for the children to come, for the parents to send them. They also need basic immunizations and check-ups.
ID cards are prepared for the workers. The color red represents labor and green represents the environment. A familiar recycling symbol appears on the back. ID cards are a step in establishing documentation as Indian citizens who may not have a birth certificate or a permanent address.
Recycling these piles of waste save the Indian government millions of rupees annually. The waste pickers get pushed further outside the city. Some of us wondered about the birth rate, but we were reminded to consider the death rate as well. With no health care or adequate nutrition mere survival is difficult at best.
Those of us who had the privilege of visiting and witnessing the very private struggles and living conditions of some hard-working people are still trying to process what we’ve seen. We’re thinking about our part in this system of exploitation and marginalization. We collected 23,000 rupees among us to assist with slates, chalk, and other educational materials for the children.
The Holdeen India Fund was established by a real estate mogul who left millions of dollars in trust funds to the UUA. He was not a Unitarian Universalist and he had never been to India, but he wanted to shelter his estate from taxes. After he died there was a long period of negotiations with his family and finally $25 million dollars was put into an endowment, the interest of which is dedicated to grassroots activism like this. Holdeen leaders look for people like Shashi who are doing the work, sit down with them and make a plan. This could include funding, training, and/or seeking additional sponsors to achieve a set of goals.
Though the caste system is no longer official policy, the people we met briefly are among the poorest of the poor. Often they come to the city from poverty in small villages and encounter culture shock. The city is so anonymous. People don’t know or care about each other the way they do in the villages. They don’t have time for each other. (Does this sound familiar in our fast-paced society?)
The waste pickers, though, have strength in numbers and have actually fought successfully against for-profit corporations. They are working for survival, not so much for profit. Sometimes authorities side with the people, the ones who clean up after everyone else, the ones who clean up after us, after me.