Former NYC waste picker gives back

While working with waste pickers in Delhi the founder of the waste picker’s union, Shashi Pandit, gave me the contact information of a man in NYC who used to work as a waste picker in Manhattan and is now using his knowledge of recyclables to teach others how to create everything from jewelry to flowers out of trash. Kappo Kappino developed ‘trash worship’ to give people another perspective on discarded material, and has visited Delhi several times to learn about the work of waste pickers across the globe. Kappino is now partnering with Pandit to start a women’s coop in Delhi. Women who have worked as waste pickers their entire lives will be taught to make flowers from recyclables that they can then sell to supplement their meager incomes.  More on Kappino, the coop, and the flowers that will ‘last forever’ can be found at his blog here: http://recycleandpray.wordpress.com/

Two sides…

“I know about these people, I studied sociology and read about them in textbooks and learned about them,” the sweating, bespectacled man huffed, walking quickly to keep pace.

“Do you know primary education in India is free? And these people don’t even send their children to school. They just want them to do the same work they’re doing, picking up trash,” the man informed.

Later, Shashi Pandit smiled at the recounting of what the man had said. “Yes, public education is free, but many times the children go and the teacher is not even there. Or the teacher leaves early, or doesn’t do anything. It really is no education at all.”

“We need education for our children, but the school are too far or not good.”

Introduction

Waste Picker Homes in New Delhi

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.

Clouds of crows at the Ghazipur Landfill where many waste pickers work

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?”

Waste Pickers. Photo Credit: Avery Williamson

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!