Don’t Waste People Trailer

Don’t Waste People Trailer

The link to the trailer on Reelhouse. Would love any feedback!

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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.

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!