Published in the International Honors Program’s Newsletter
While studying abroad with the International Honors Program, my group had the opportunity to meet a community of waste pickers in New Delhi, India. We learned about their informal role in Delhi’s waste management system, taking recyclables from city streets, municipal collection bins, and the landfill, and sorting them for reuse. They are unrecognized in legislation, generally ignored by society, and their livelihoods are in peril as municipalities increasingly opt for privatization of waste collection and recycling.
As we were leaving the community of waste pickers back in February 2011, one woman told of the many groups that come to learn about their work, yet nothing had been done to stop the constant harassment from the police and officials, or to help secure their livelihoods. “Will you just leave too?” the woman asked.
Shortly before graduating from Boston University in May 2012, I emailed Kalyani Menon-Sen, our IHP country coordinator in Delhi, and she put me in touch with Shashi Pandit, founder of AIKMM, an organization of over 17,000 waste pickers in Delhi and the surrounding region. Shashi had facilitated my group’s introduction to the waste pickers while studying in Delhi.
I returned to Delhi in the fall of 2012, with the goal to film a documentary on the lives and livelihoods of waste pickers in the city. Shashi works with roughly 150 waste picker communities organizing meetings with other NGOs and officials who are interested in the waste picker’s work. Thankfully, Shashi’s extensive network and rapport with the communities has made filming far easier than I expected.
Despite Shashi’s assurance that filming in every community is “no problem,” a camera in the hands of an outsider draws suspicion. People have not protested their work being filmed, but at first react with wary eyes, scrutinizing stares, and furrowed brows. As Shashi explains the reason for intruding on their work, their shoulders relax and the tension begins to melt from their faces, but still their eyes follow the camera.
Once interviews start, people become more curious, and often chime in to answer questions. After a few hours, the community becomes familiar with the camera’s presence, and the focus again is on picking small plastic bags and bottles from piles of waste, hardly anyone giving the camera a second glance. Asking for more intimate pieces of people’s lives will require trust, but, it is the details of daily life that will illustrate the similarities between peoples, instead of simply showing work that may be foreign to many. Although I may have established some level of familiarity, trust takes far longer to build. I hope that by the end of three months I will have earned the trust of a few people so their stories can be shared.
Amazingly, this fall I also had the chance to connect with IHP Beyond Globalization students in Delhi.
It was both reassuring and inspiring to have their interest in my project and to be able to share my experience. The three months of filming have now come to a close and I returned to the US in mid-December. Reflection at first was overwhelming, the memories too prolific and jumbled to make sense of just yet. The most powerful moments were the moments of understanding, of community, and compassion, where despite language barriers and apparently vast differences our shared humanity overcame all differences and allowed us to empathize and feel connected. When I started the project, I was motivated by pity to want to empower the people working as waste pickers. Now I realize that pity has no place in empowerment, because pity stems from looking down on another. It’s not until we see others as truly equal that we can work to empower one another. Through filming the work of the waste pickers and interviewing them, I have gained respect for their profession, their resilience, their strength, and their sense of community. In a world where consumption is advocated to drive economies, resources are increasingly scarce, and waste increasingly abundant, reusing material will soon become a necessity rather than a choice, and we will all rely on the work done by people like the waste pickers.
Recently, the country of India has been featured in popular media with increasing frequency. The most recent issue of The Economist featured a special report on India titled, “India: In Search of a Dream”.
The report said that, “Labour laws that help make Indian workers as costly to employers as much better-paid Chinese ones need to be scrapped. Foreign-investment rules need to be loosened to raise standards in finance, higher education and infrastructure. The state’s role in power, coal, railways and air travel needs to shrink. Archaic, British-era rules on buying land need to be changed.”
Ravi Agarwal, founder and director of ToxicsLink, and Dunu Roy, director of Hazards Centre, both in New Delhi, offered alternative views of development in interviews conducted by Empowerment Media on September 24th and 25th, 2012.
Below are notable quotes from their interview transcripts:
“This is how economists are thinking: there is this wealth that lies at the bottom that needs to be extracted in order to get at GDP.
A revealing glimpse into this is that the companies that were given these contracts for solid waste management by the municipalities were basically supposed to take the waste as it accumulates and transfer it to the landfills, and their income would come from what they get paid per ton for waste delivered at the landfill. So initially their interest is to increase the tonnage of what they take to the landfill But they have discovered in the last one year or so that in fact what they take to the landfill has a lot of recyclable stuff. and therefore they’re denying the waste picker these recyclables and saying we are going to take that waste, so what happens is that recyclable get subtracted from that total amount, so they are getting paid less by municipalities. But what happens is that the small tonnage they take out as recyclables they’re getting about 10 times more income out of that recyclable. So in a sense they are taking the waste picker out of the scene itself not in terms of collecting and segregating the recycle, but in terms of the waste picker having control over the recycle and being able to sell it. So they’re saying you continue collecting, you continue segregating but WE will take over the sale.
That explains how the formal organization gobbles up a chunk of the profit and they leave it to the informal sector. This is the wealth at the bottom of the pyramid that these economists are talking about. And they talk about it so glibly, as if they’re doing the poor a good deed, they’re not, they’re basically extracting more and more surpluses out of them. That’s globalization. That’s the wealth at the bottom of the pyramid. ”
“The answer is very simple the pyramid needs to be inverted. This business of the people at the top taking away all the labor, all the products, all the, in a sense, creativity, of the large majority at the bottom, this has to stop. And the large majority has to begin asserting that this is our product, this is our right.”