Interview- Waste pickers are climate warriors as well!

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Bharati Chaturvedi- Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group- shares her motivations behind setting up the organization, her views on the impact of the newly released e-waste guidelines on the informal waste sector, and also the impact of privatization and Commonwealth Games on the life of a common waste picker.

Bharati Chaturvedi is the founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. Prior to this, she was one of the founders of Srishti and has also worked as a consultant to various national and international organizations. Bharati has a Masters in International Public Policy from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. She has received a LEAD (Leadership in Environment and Development) fellowship in 2005 and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Synergos Institute in New York.

Can you tell us something about Chintan and what was the thought behind setting it up?

The idea behind Chintan was a partnership between groups of people who are not necessarily organized- people who provide environmental services but are themselves victims of environmental injustice; and people like us who are middle class, educated people and understand the business aspect.  I do not understand the intricacies of the waste business like a recycler but I understand policy, and I thought this would be a great combination to initiate change. That is how Chintan was started. 

Does Chintan work with waste pickers or recyclers only in Delhi or nationwide? 

There are two main parts to our work- Organizing and Policy. The organizational aspect of our work is mainly in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh and though they are adjacent, they are totally different in terms of experience. Governance is practically nonexistent in Uttar Pradesh, though this does not mean that Delhi is totally clean and green. Organizing is localized mainly because of the effort that it requires, but the policy work that we have done has a nationwide impact. I think it is also important for us to work at these two levels, so that we don’t colonize other people’s spaces, but we are also able to use our partnership knowledge and make larger shifts.

What is your recommendation to the national or international policy makers for increased inclusion of the informal sector in the domestic policies on waste management?

Firstly, it is important to bring any person in the team who can be a climate warrior. Get them to do doorstep collection, legalize it, subsidize it, train them, formalize it because then you don’t have to worry about open dumping. Secondly, find space and compost! I always prefer decentralized composting rather than centralized due to costs of transport and other fiscal costs that are involved, other than just environmental costs. Change the rules about landfills and don’t allow organic waste in landfills. Thirdly, upgrade your recycling. You can never get climate justice if your recycling is based on oppression. Really very honestly, the way that things can really move is that the policy makers are able to think of frugality as desirable. I realize that in very extreme conditions, you cannot live with very few things but you can try to live with as few as you can. And it is difficult for us and a lot of people to do that without policy frameworks. And so my point is make frameworks to minimize consumption. Give people a choice between low consumption and very low consumption, high consumption is not an option. Do that and stop pretending that it is immoral and undemocratic. I think the time for that is over. 

The Government of India recently issued the e-waste guidelines; does it mention anything about the informal sector and their role? Are you also working on any recommendations on the guidelines?

Yes it does mention the informal sector, but it is not very well done. For example it talks about re-furbishers and there are people who repair mixies etc., who need to get registered and go through a whole authorization process. What you are doing is you have a whole reuse system, but you are creating so many barriers that you are in a way dis- incentivizing reuse, which in the larger context is a very anti green thing to do. 

Yes, we have come up with a bunch of recommendations that are basically coming out of the informal sector. We are also working with other organizations that comprise the informal sector, e-waste sector such as 4R which is a dismantlers association and a bunch of other people and trying to help them understand these rules, so that these people get a new voice there and get new perspective. 

What is the approximate outreach of Chintan to the waste pickers and rag pickers?

With our processes, the number would be well over 10,000 but we may not outreach to the same people all the time, as many people would may not stay in Delhi anymore , then they just come for meetings occasionally. I know the struggles of poor people never end and victories are never permanent.  I do think that there are lots of ragpickers like that who believe that they have some kind of truce with the city. 

It is mostly thought that Privatization would mean efficiency and solution. While privatization is being advanced to the waste collection and transportation scenario, do you anticipate any problems as a result of that? Is Chintan undertaking any initiatives in this regard?

I think it depends on what the privatization will entail. Currently, the waste recycling and the waste pickers, that whole sector, is already a private sector. It is not a government sector, and they have done a fantastic job and have been extremely effective. The problem is when you bring in false subsidies and larger players, then you just change the playing field. You change it from a game where you need understanding and skill and knowledge, to a game where you need just really huge pockets. And when you do that you obviously create disadvantage. Waste pickers, rag pickers and other small actors cannot compete and they get underemployed or unemployed. A study that Chintan did showed that 50% of waste pickers in a specific are that was privatized in Delhi actually lost their jobs or became unemployed. 

Are there any particular business models being adopted to promote waste recyclers as entrepreneurs?

We are experiencing several different household collection systems working with e-waste dismantlers and they have plans of setting up a system on their own. They have been working on it for the past ten months and the Government of Delhi has been flip-flopping on this issue. One of the key things we are doing is that we are making them understand policy, as they can do a lot of work but they need to first understand how the city works, as only then they can fight back for their rights. We are even tying up with private companies so that they can work with waste pickers. Waste pickers are organized as an association of their own Safai Sena and Chintan’s job increasingly over the next 3 years is going to be to support Safai Sena, but we don’t drive their agenda.  

Are the Commonwealth games having any effect on the life of the ragpickers?

It is not just the life it is affecting; it is the entire sense of being part of a city which is being affected, as people can clearly see how easily they are being swept under the carpet and how irrelevant they are. They think they belong to a city but the city is a giant which is shaking them off. It is affecting the reason for which they migrated to the urban sector.

This interview was conducted by Roselin Dey, Editorial Team, India Carbon Outlook.

Image(s) Courtesy

Mdiocuh  Galeals 

Tawheed Manzoor 

Adam Jones 


Author: Roselin Dey