After recovering from a long break from field visits for medical reasons, today I had a meeting scheduled with a union of rag pickers in Mumbai. And, I was excited. My colleague Rupal gave me directions and asked me to come to road no. 13 in Shivajinagar. The address had an abstract ring to it and sounded just perfect for my first expedition.
It took me a while to find my destination. We are so used to the classical Indian nomenclature of streets that suddenly having a street number to locate was odd. I had Google maps at my disposal but then after a while it gave up as well. Streets in India are not really amenable to a high order of electronic specificity. I got down a little ahead and sought my way around.
The lazy street (number 13) emerged from a huddle of houses rather suddenly; it was difficult to make out where its origin was. On one of its diffused edges was a small 50m road connecting it to number 12. As I walked on I realized that it was not a road but a mound of old garbage perfected into a permanent structure. On the sides of the “garbage-road” were two choked nallahs full of plastic and junk. The stench, however, was miss-able as the life around was far more engaging.
For some time I was plain overwhelmed to be there. I have been living in Mumbai for a few years now but my visits to its subaltern corners are not that frequent. I was conscious for I could feel the eyes on me. I did not belong there and people must be curious. Waiting for my colleague to join, I stood there trying to absorb my surroundings. I looked around at the small decrepit houses/tenements and tried stealing a peek into the lives they hosted – a mother-daughter pair oiling their hair; a hen fussing over her chicks and a man lying on a steel cot toying with his mobile phone. On an under-construction stretch of the road, some workers lazed around while the earnest ones squabbled with children playing cricket to protect the fresh cement and concrete. I could see that children were drawing more thrills out of the squabble than cricket. They would strike a shot towards the under-construction patch; wait for the workers to react and then run dropping their bats with a loud cheer. This went on for a while. I thought about the limited narratives on the lives of the poor. As a student of development I never did look at the content, joyous sides of their lives. We are almost conditioned to look at them as “deprived” and I wonder if it limits our ability to communicate and work with them.
I looked around and wondered what I could do to change the lives of those around me on that road. It appeared to me a complete world, in peace with itself. Where was the need for any intervention?
We finally met the union of rag pickers we had come to see – Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangha (KVSS). KVSS was promoted by Apnalaya, a well-respected CSO in Mumbai, working to address the travails of the rag-picking community and advocate for its rights. We met Shalini, the chairperson and two more members from the core committee of the Sangathan and learnt about their pursuit and concerns. They were vocal about the contribution they made to keep the city going by picking, sorting and recycling the lakhs of tonnes of garbage it produced every day. It was fascinating to hear how specialized the work was–some collected only wood, some only old jute bags while some rag-pickers specialized in collecting broom-sticks and making new brooms out of the reject which was then sold in the market.
Recycling brooms, that is the order of sustainable living this informal industry enabled. The city administration however did not recognize its work.
One of the biggest struggles for this community was to claim a worker’s identity. Rag picking remained at the fringes of urban policy and I guess some of it had to do with the multi-crore grey economy that it helped thrive. Our sources recounted how the industry was infested with mafia and there were bloody fights over “premium” garbage coming from hospitals/certain affluent localities. I was reminded of the telling account of the life and times of a garbage trading family in Katherine Boo’s Behind the beautiful forevers. Most of us in Mumbai live so oblivious of such narratives. The city indeed inhabits multiple worlds.
KVSS issued identity cards for its members and helped them avail insurance. It ran crèches for the children of its members and struggled for access to drinking water, toilets for women, a canteen and health services. We learnt that the identity card gave KVSS members an access to the Chembur dumping ground, which the government had recently handed over to a private company for administration. The company employed boxers to keep rag-pickers out. KVSS members, however, had an entry by virtue of owning the membership card. I was again reminded of how the informal spaces in India were governed, not by rules but through bargaining. Legitimacy was up for negotiation. Owning the ID card made some rag pickers legitimate and in turn excluded others.
The recent most threat to this collective came from BMC’s decision to move part of the garbage traffic from Chembur to Kanjurmarg. It was likely to deprive hundreds of workers of their livelihood. Shalini, the chair of KVSS was planning to meet the BMC officials and was hopeful that the decision would be reconsidered. Her dream was to get BMC recognition for KVSS members and along with it social security benefits and the dignity that they deserved but rarely received.
We left after a two hour stimulating conversation. The degree of ownership exuded by the women leaders of the cause and their organization – the Union – was inspiring. As we left, the street assumed a new character for me and I thought of the lives that Shalini and her collaborators led. I thought of their struggles as women, as workers, as community leaders and of their successes. Another part of Mumbai had come to life for me. From now whenever I would take the SCLR I know that street number 13 would be special …
Amrita Sharma, Aajeevika Bureau