In February, 2011 I met a group of waste pickers while studying abroad in Delhi, India with the International Honors Program. A bus drove me and my fellow students to the outskirts of the city, where the waste pickers welcomed us to their settlement. They started to tell us about how they pull plastic bottles, pieces of metal, and other valuable recyclables from the landfill and trash piles in order to re-sell for a meager wage, but soon after they began talking our professor came around to each of us students and whispered that we had to leave. Plain clothed police had entered the crowd to monitor what the waste pickers told us. We left their settlement for fear our presence would endanger them. A few of the waste pickers came with us as our bus drove to the landfill, so they could continue explaining the work they did.
We drove to the landfill, where clouds of crows circled in the air, hazy with the smoke of spontaneous methane fires burning in the mountainous expanse of waste before us. The waste pickers who were still with us explained that they paid off the guards at the landfill for access to the trash since waste is owned by the municipalities, and taking recyclables is considered stealing. They told us how children are buried in heaps of falling trash when they get overly excited and reach for shining pieces of metal lodged beneath precariously balanced waste. They told us how they work with their bare hands, and breathe in the smoke of the fires that unpredictably begin burning on the landfill. Before we left, the woman who had been speaking to us looked at our group and said, (translation) “You are not the first group to come. Many have come before. We show them our lives and work and then they leave. Are you just going to leave us too?”
In India, it is estimated that 1.5 million people make a living from waste picking. I will be returning to Delhi mid-September to work with Shashi Pandit, founder of AIKMM, a member-based organization of over 17,000 waste pickers in Delhi and create a film about the waste pickers, their attempts to organize and advocate for rights, and the multiple forces that hinder their access to rights.
The film will begin by following waste pickers in Delhi through their daily living and working routine. It will focus on informal interviews with the waste pickers themselves discussing their past experiences attempting to advocate for rights and their current efforts and goals for the future. The film will also include interviews with Delhi citizens, experts and (if possible) policy makers in order to explore social, political and economic angles of the issue on local, state and global levels.
The goal of the film is to explore the issue of accessing rights from multiple angles in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of why the waste pickers in Delhi have been unable to gain basic human rights so far. Understanding oppression as the result of social, political and economic forces at local, national and global scales will hopefully help inform solutions.
Here you will be able to follow my progress while I am in Delhi. More to come!