The Meaning of Marginalization Part 2

In Sahaberderi the waste pickers rent the land they live on. The land is owned by the government. They pay rent to a landlord. The landlord doesn’t work for the government, but he’s part of a powerful land mafia that have political clout in the area. So he demands money from the waste pickers of Sahaberderi in order to live on land that is not his, otherwise he will have them evicted or have their homes flattened.

He also tells visitors that they are not allowed on the land without his permission. Even though it is not his.

In Ghazipur, the community homes have been burnt twice. Both fires started at night when the community members were asleep. The Ghazipur community lives on land that a few private interests (hotel chains etc) have their eye on for development. The community is the one thing that stand in the way since they have refused to move. Who set the fires? Nobody in the community knows for certain.

Usa, a woman who sits at the municipal waste bin at Connaught Place in the city center pays bribes on a daily basis to police, government officials and workers from private waste collection companies. The police tell her what she does is illegal, but that they’ll look the other way if she pays. Government officials and private company employees tell Usa that the waste belongs to them, and by sorting through it she is stealing. She hands over hundreds of rupees with a smile on her face, knowing that if she refuses to pay there will be repercussions. Uneducated and illiterate, Usa does not know whether these people are telling the truth. All she knows is that by going through the trash and selling recyclables, she can make enough to support herself and her seven children, and if she doesn’t pay she risks losing access to the trash, her livelihood.

The waste pickers and constantly taken advantage of because they are illiterate and impoverished. They are willing to chase any glimmer of hope to try and make more money and support themselves, their families and their communities. They do not have the ability to see when they may be taken advantage of. The waste pickers are hard working and willing to advocate for their rights, but they need honest, genuine people who are willing to help them and point them in the right direction.

I am like the crab…

A week ago when we visited the community at Gazipur, we were told Mustafa was not there because he had gone back to his village in Eastern India. When he returned, Mustafa told us that a poor family in his village had a son who had broken his leg, and the family didn’t have the money for his surgery. Mustafa went home to give them 10,500 rupees (roughly 200 USD) to fix the boy’s leg. Back in Gazipur he told us he didn’t know how he could continue supporting his family because no job paid enough. Mustafa has gone back and forth between waste collecting and selling chickens, but with a wife and five children to support he is constantly struggling to make enough money to feed his family.

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As we sat with Mustafa he began to recount a story he had heard while in his village.

“In Kolkata,” Mustafa began, “one man was told by an American fellow to catch crabs. He did so and the man gave him much money for the crabs. When

the man came to get the crabs, he put them in a bucket and left the bucket out with the top open. ‘Why do you leave it open?’ the other man asked, ‘the crabs

will escape.’

‘No,’ the first man replied. ‘The crabs will not escape because each time one tries to climb out, the others pull him back in.'”

“I am like the crab,” Mustafa explained. “Poverty and lack of education keep pulling me back down, no matter how far I get or what I do.”

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Mustafa got up, pushed aside the tattered cloth hanging across the doorway and vanished into another home. Seconds later he emerged carrying a worn gym bag. He set it on the bed where

he had been sitting and unzipped it, revealing folders and piles of papers. He pulled out a single folder and opened it, handing us a leaflet of papers. The top paper had his name, his (estimated) date of birth, and the number of years he had attended school: 3.

“I know the importance of education,” Mustafa told us, “I want my children to go to school. I want to learn and fight for my rights, but I don’t know how.”

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One of Mustafa’s five sons with their goats. Who wear sweaters.

The Meaning of Marginalization

In Seemapuri last week, the police came to crack down on informal and illegal businesses and practices. The waste picker’s work is illegal in a few regards. According to the Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2000, which dictate how household waste in India is to be collected, segregated, stored, transported and processed, manual handling of municipal solid waste is illegal unless done by specified workers. The waste pickers usually work informally and thus do not fall under this specification. They handle waste by hand, therefore what they are doing is illegal. Littering is also prohibited by the MSW Rules 2000, and people tend to make the argument that waste pickers contribute to litter by sorting and segregating waste on the streets (many communities segregate in their homes/ in open spaces within their communities, but since they live in informal settlements these spaces are not walled off and can be seen by anyone passing by). Waste collection is predominantly privatized, and private companies claim that waste is their property, so by taking it to segregate, the waste pickers are stealing.

For these reasons when the police come to Seemapuri, they take away as much of the waste that the people are segregating as possible. It cleans up the streets but deprives the people of their only source of income. According to Akbar who lives in Seemapuri, the police come about once a month or once every other month and crack down on everyone in the area. This last time the waste pickers received an unofficial tip that the police would be coming by, and took most of the waste into their homes so the police would not take it. Relying on a daily income from a single source means that losing that source, even for a single day, results in not being able to feed oneself or one’s family that day. The waste pickers depend on waste to survive. Because of this, they can easily be exploited by anyone with the power to take that waste away.

Side note: The MSW Rules 2000 also prohibit stray animals from rummaging in municipal waste bins. I have not seen a single municipal waste bin without at least one dog, pig, cow, or goat. The police have not cracked down on the animals.

Seemapuri, slightly more empty than usual.

Seemapuri, slightly more empty than usual.

Each bag is a source of income for multiple people...

Each bag is a source of income for multiple people…

Lives, inextricably linked to waste. Not just an issue of the environment.

Lives, inextricably linked to waste. Not just an issue of the environment.