Pune There is a time, even in Mumbai, when the highway is not an obstacle to climb, and it turns out it is 7 AM in the morning. We sailed through the city. We were going to Pune for a meeting and coincidentally in setting up the session it turned out that the newly hired director of the waste pickers co-op we would hear about was someone well known to Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director, so we picked Sakindia and her mother and their baggage up in south Mumbai on the way.
Our mission in Pune was to visit with Kagad, Kach, Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, better known as KKPKP, which is a union of 6000 members in this city of 1.5 M people 3 hours through the mountains in the south of the state of Maharashtra. We drove past the sites of where the British had built some of their “hill stations” for relief of the colonial forces from the stifling heat of Bombay. Pune had a reputation as a college town of sorts that had become a center of a fair amount of IT work. The narrow streets of the city were shaded by tamarind and other trees to create a softer scene than in Delhi or Mumbai.
I had met Laxmi Narayan in Bogota. Along with Poornima Chikarmane, another KKPKP organizer, over the last 15 years that had build a very interesting and effective union of waste pickers in Pune, so we wanted to get a better understanding of their operation and experience, along with the pitfalls and possibilities. The most interesting thing I had heard her say in Bogota is that they had convinced the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) to fund certain social security benefits for the waste pickers. To me this sounded like they were not far from creating “co-employer” recognition from the PMC acknowledging that the PMC had some responsibility for the public services provided by waste pickers.
Importantly we also heard the details of their pilot over the last 2-years with the PMC to provide household collection of waste for 300,000 households and therefore work for 1500 of their members. A change in the political office holders in Pune had prevented the arrangement from being finally passed by the PMC council but working with a “corporator” they had managed to nearly resuscitate the deal (and would find out later this week) to handle the residential collection for 80 of the 150 wards of Pune, which would double the number of their members working in this way to 3000. To implement this arrange they had chosen to create a co-operative to subcontract the work from the PMC, rather than negotiating the agreement directly with the union.
We talked extensively about what they had chosen this course of action, and it was not easy to figure out. At one level it may have been simply pragmatic: the PMC might have refused to negotiate a written agreement with the union. In other ways it was harder to piece out, why the union would not want to control the work, but instead would want to create a co-op to do so. How the union and co-op would effectively relate with each other, and importantly improve the wages and benefits of the workers also involved some contractions.
We talked about the United States experience in “creating an employer” for informal workers at length, and compared how the US and India context offered various lessons. This was an interesting proposition to Laxmi and Poonima but they were serious organizers who had spent many hours over the last 15 years debating every aspect of the work and what they were doing, and had deep convictions on their directions and decisions. They also were “children of the left” and even while building an important union of informal workers, seemed to have mixed feelings about being a union and how that was seen on the left and among NGO’s in India.
We promised to get together again when I would return next to India. They wanted to learn from our work in developing housing for our members since they thought that was a next step for them.
And, of course continue the conversations as we all took more steps forward on paths that were now joining. Their work was inspirational and showed what could be done. We would have to see if we could pull all of these strands together into something as strong.