Building a Union of Street Vendors in Bengaluru

1149163_743188589067481_1407106341_oBengaluru   I had a long list of things I needed to get done on this trip to India, catch up with Dharmendra Kumar in Delhi on our progress at blocking multi-brand retail in Delhi and stopping foreign direct investment, state by state, and evaluate our growing, alliance with hawkers, and my coming visit with Vinod Shetty in Mumbai will focus on our progress in Dharavi and see the developments in the sorting system for our wastepickers were vital.  But, none ranked higher than visiting with Suresh Kadashan and seeing if we had finally succeeded in forming official, registered unions for the informal workers we were organizing in Bengaluru.

            The organizing was certainly not new.  We had been plugging away at it for about five years with wastepickers, hawkers, domestic workers, and others, but eighteen months ago our decision had been to bite the bullet and register formally as an independent trade union under the laws of the state of Karnataka, where Bengaluru with about 5 million people is the capital and largest city.  The rest of the world may know Bangalore by its old name and its reputation as India’s tech center or as “silicon” city, as some of the boosters are saying now, but that’s another world from our organizing with slum dwellers and informal workers.  1614525_743188425734164_1782074469_o

            But every month we would try to register and could get no decision, and this went on, frustratingly, for over a year until this last December, when finally a deputy labor commissioner agreed to a path forward.  Winning the registration was a matter of signatures from members and producing a minimum number (150) at a meeting of the street vendors.  We now have organized the vendors in 25 different street markets throughout the city and once the process is finalized in coming months Suresh expects we will find ourselves with 6000 new dues-paying members.  I was with Suresh yesterday as we bussed and auto-rickshawed to various street markets to meet with the officers of local branches of our new union in several places.  1782537_743188469067493_1394852361_o

I also got to watch him have an impromptu noon meeting with 35 vendors on a side street market that needed to come into the union in order to fight for space under the Metro since a bridge was about to displace them once construction began.  It was exciting to watch a small plastic tarp spread over nearby dirt transformed into an organizing meeting!  Already our fledgling union has successfully filed cases against police harassment of vendors based on protections for sellers that are included in the state constitution, giving hard pressed hawkers some spring in their step.  In the meeting as well, Suresh dramatically pulled out the application papers for a national pension scheme that could provide small retirements for our members after 60 based on a 2:1 match annually that, importantly, has to be certified by the official seal of our union.1956692_743188309067509_1196393137_o

Registrations for a wastepickers union floundered, when the city privatized wet and dry garbage pickup, but we’re watching that situation closely.  We’ve also now filed for a local union of street food preparers which could yield another 2000 members, once approved, and, yes, India is the home of the craft union, more than the industrial model, as you can see. 

Opportunity within the informal sector abounds.  Leaders estimated 130000 street vendors ply their wares in Bengaluru and perhaps a million-and-a-half are vendors among all of Karnataka 61 million people, but in this huge state, that’s still a bridge too far perhaps since 10 of the 15 districts would have to organize in order to win a statewide union charter.

            Big dreams and hard work, yield big dividends, and finally our new union is alive and growing in Bengaluru, but that also means even bigger dreams and harder work lie ahead of us in the future.  It was thrilling to be a part of it all!



India for my Father in Pictures

Mumbai    In our continuing quest to communicate here is something of a photographic essay on some of the things I’m taking away from my last 11 days in India as I head back to the states, that I thought I would share, and that I hope you enjoy and feel like you were with me:

  • Every dawn walking on Juhu Beach there is a group of men, sometimes a half-dozen and sometimes twenty having their own “tea party” before they are gone at 630 AM.

  • “I Love India” on one of the colorful trucks in front of Dharavi.

  • A special way of pouring coffee in order to cool the tin cups for drinking at the Hotel Ram Ashray Coffeehouse.

  • One of our young Dharavi Rocks recyclers rapping in front of our office for a camera crew from Tele-metro – Panamanian TV.

  • Time for a nap on the street in Dharavi.

  • Finding Vinod’s office across from the MIG Cricket Club in Bandra East.

  • Finding files in Vinod’s office might be harder!

  • A condo high rise is being built to replace the great Sea View Hotel Restaurant & Beer Bar overlooking Juhu Beach, which had been my favorite spot in all of Mumbai!

  • The view from Vinod’s living room window of the Bay where the Portuguese landed hundreds of years ago when settling the great Mumbai as a fishing village on seven islands in what is now Bandra West.


Big Claims and Baby Steps for Corporate Social Responsibility in India

CSR wall painting at Xavier Institute of Engineering

Mumbai    A week ago in Delhi I read an interesting argument on the op-ed page of the Economic Times by Kiran Karnik in which he argued that businesses in Indian needed to start going beyond the simple limits of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and begin a direct “engagement with the government and, importantly, civil society organizations on matters of social consequence – going beyond the narrow interests of business.”  He mentioned examples including land acquisition (development), environment, mining, and water, but the list could also include sanitation, education, housing, poverty, and more.  Such engagement he reasoned was superior to the simple (and sometimes simple-minded) rupee-based “philanthropy” of CSR because he called on corporations to use the full range of their power and influence, including on issues like human rights, corruption, governance, and even accept “a duty to promote the welfare of all citizens, to democratic and egalitarian values, and to the country….”

Part of the backdrop for such a high-minded call arises from an increasing consensus in many sectors of Indian society that holds that solving some of India’s more intractable problems requires a different level of CSR for its companies.  There is discussion about making CSR a mandatory expenditure for all companies.  As Karnik indicated, “The new Companies Bill may well include a clause on this [CSR] – probably a ‘comply or explain’ provision.”  Heady stuff!

On the ground level we are ready for a lot more CSR to meet the huge needs for support for ACORN’s organizing in Dharavi and elsewhere in India, but our experience with the reality is often with baby steps from smaller outfits, rather than the big claims made by Karnik.  Many of our partners have developed relationships with us that are remarkable, like the Blue Frog jazz club, the Xavier Institute of Engineering, the American School and others.  Sometimes the lessons of CSR are harder.  A bank with 125 volunteers wanting to paint classrooms ended up making the wall around Xavier more lively, but having their eyes larger than their stomachs, we ended up scrambling to pay for the paint!  In other cases companies have met our desperate needs for space by offering to build sheds next to temples, not realizing that a significant percentage of our wastepickers are Muslim!   We hope we’ll get there certainly, but the learning curve is steep and requires a lot of bridge building.

It would be interesting to see if India made CSR mandatory or at least a default that had to be addressed.  The gap between common or community interest proposed by Karnik and the more common first impulses of many business here “to build their brand” or claim they are “doing good” in some marginal way, regardless of the practice, are still mostly “business as usual” for CSR in India.   Of course that’s not surprising really, since that is also the way CSR works in the USA, Canada, and most of the rest of the world as well.

discarded books donated by the American School


Organizing Around Education and Art in Dharavi

new concrete fence and concertina wire in Dharavi after 10 meters of slums were cleared on each side of sewer pipes

Mumbai     This was a different visit to ACORN’s organizing in Dharavi.  In the year since I had been here the Mumbai water & sewer system had implemented their plan to clear away 10 meters on either side of their huge drainage pipes thereby eliminating hundreds of residents and our original offices overlooking the pipes.  We now were perched precariously four levels up over the ground level in a slender space running us 9000 rupees per month ($185 USD) with the landlord who shrugged at the fact that we were nonprofit, not caring if we ran a factory for plastics or a recycling and sorting center for our wastepickers.   Another 5000 rupees was going to put tar on our corrugated roofing today in order to keep the coming monsoons due this weekend from ruining the castaway books we had in great supply from the recent spring cleaning at the American School where we do recycling.   We had also picked up some old desktop computers, but weren’t sure if they would be e-waste or working instruments because our space had already been broken into five times since we relocated.  Offers of donated laptops had been deferred until we could solve the problem.

Ironically, only a few blocks away in the last year our partnership with St. Xavier’s, the Jesuit school abutting Dharavi had flourished mightily.  We used to have to rent the classrooms for meetings of our members to issue ration cards or do our normal business, but now St. Xavier had opened their arms to our activity.  On the weekends their long dirt-and-grass patch field now was the site of our football (soccer) team where volunteer coaches were sorting out 70 or more boys every Sunday for the games.  Another group of donors to the ACORN Foundation (India) had come up with four different colors of jerseys for the teams, which were quite a treat as well.

ACORN football jersey

I visited at length with Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN’s work in Mumbai, and the principle of St. Xavier’s.  He had gone to school at Marquette University in Milwaukee and had another of his team who had been to Santa Clara in California, so we were able to talk about Jesuits in New Orleans, recent problems in Wisconsin, and how Dwyane Wade was representing Marquette in the NBA Finals.  More importantly he walked with us from the field to see how our new Dharavi Project class in English was going with our volunteers.  We listened to some of the lesson in the completely packed class teeming with over 50 participants.  Only weeks ago the first class had only a bit more than a dozen, but popularity was soaring for the 630 PM session.

Next we waited for the weekly music class and practice of ACORN’s Dharavi Rocks group of a dozen of our kids.  The group plays on recycled items that have been part of their livelihoods in Dharavi and because of our partnership with the Blue Frog jazz club we have been asked to open for some of their acts, hosted some great European bands doing concerts in Dharavi, and have been featured in People magazine, MTV, and even a story in the Times of India when Dharavi Rocks played in nearby Pune last weekend.  What had been a roar of talking and laughing was transformed into totally focused music once they started the rhythms of this plastic drum circle.  Stay tuned to the ACORN International Youtube channel when I get back and we upload the video and music from these sessions, which I guarantee will rock your world.  This is hard work but it is what I would call “360 degree community organizing” from livelihood to art and education all done on a shoestring using volunteers, member activity, and money and partnerships where we can get them.

Dharavi Rocks!

It would be precious without a campaign component, and similarly to the bursary campaign ACORN Kenya is running the lack of implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act may allow us to campaign up to scale.  The DNA- Daily News and Analysis for 6/13/12 indicated that the State of Maharashtra is threatening to “derecognize” 32000 schools, both public and private, for not having set aside 25% of their admissions for poor children.  The response from many of the schools quoted was simply pathetic, claiming that they had received no applications, even while admitting that they had not created an applicant procedure.  Vinod also could put the lie to that when he listed the schools where our members had applied and were told that they were “already full.”

Organizing like the work that ACORN is doing in Dharavi and other slums around India is going to be knocking at the door of many of these schools and the groundwork is being laid now right in our own office and recycling center and at night in the halls of St. Xavier, and our members will not be denied.



Back to Mumbai and “Behind the Beautiful Forever”

rooftop picture of slum in Dharavi, Mumbai

Mumbai     Registering slums and settlements is very important business in India.  Being a registered slum gives both immediate benefits and potentially some future entitlements.  Immediately there are things like water, not just the tanks making the delivery, but a commitment from the city that ends in standpipes and the promise of more.  Electricity may have been there in some form or fashion, but registration makes it formal.  Property can be registered, owned, and sold, and there can be addresses for the inhabitants making it easier to register to vote, get ration cards, demand education, and more.  The entitlements include assistance and support if relocated as well, which in the burgeoning metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru where we work, is also very important.

A book about life in the slums, specifically an area abutting the Mumbai airport, that I’ve often seen, as the title says, Behind the Beautiful Forever, an advertising billboard which serves as landmark for the community, was recently written by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter, now living in India for the last decade.  The book has gotten a lot of glowing reviews and some attention.  I had read a piece of it sometime ago in The New Yorker, and was prepared not to like it, but also, given my work, felt compelled to read it, and did so flying over to India this trip.

            First impressions can be hard to shake.  The book is unforgiving and bleak.  There are no happy endings coming and heroes are hard to find.  Boo is going to have some difficulty selling the movie rights to these stories, but whether in Mumbai or Latin America or even the US, having worked in so many of these areas, I may not have liked reading it, but I couldn’t escape feeling the authenticity of the reporting.  Soldiering through the book, I was forced to admit it wasn’t the writing or the reality so clearly presented, but more likely a suspicion about the hidden voice of the author and where she stood in the middle of the slum and these stories that she was presenting as seamlessly as a screenplay, sometimes filled with drama and tinged with horror.  True or false, I had to admit I was not sure she had the right to tell such a hopeless tale.

            I was finally assuaged when I arrived at the author’s note and her intentions became clearer.  She may not have been a participant, but I have to credit her close observation.  She counted more than 160 interviews on one terrible episode where a woman known as “One Leg” self immolates in what seems a petty dispute.   Boo also made a better case for trying to come to terms with the slum and its people and her commitment was straightforward.

As an organizer, no matter how hard bitten there is always a romantic or idealistic hope, a faith in people’s ability to come together, to build power, and to affect change.

None of this grows Behind the Beautiful Forever.   To her credit Boo is even handed and outs the NGO scams and the way the World Visions and others are used in their own schemes as a form of corruption every bit as much as she eviscerates the flimsy fabric of a criminal “justice” system that is premised on a pyramid of bribes.  In an enraging story of criminal accusations and lives bent with accusations of murder on the One Leg immolation, a whole family is drowning in bribes borrowed and unable to be paid, complete with time in jail as they try to survive a ridiculous court system across language, delays, judicial inattention, and other obstacles.   The story is so depressing and angering that I felt there was no way innocence could be in the offing, so to Boo’s report was denouement.  Rather than a happy ending and some faint proof that there was hope in the world, I knew it was totally random and a rare lucky break.

If Behind the Beautiful Forever has a cause or a theme, it is less the people and life in the slums than it is total, pervasive corruption that permeates virtually every transaction between people, between people and institutions, and really between people, fate, and future.  There is a massive drive around corruption underway in Indian public life and politics, and despite its middle class support, it is given little hope by many.  The multi-million dollar scandals nicking at the heels of the ruling Congress Party and the Prime Minister, coupled with less optimistic economic reports, have most believing that they face a shellacking in the elections in 2014.

Will it matter in the slums?  Boo’s book watches how life loses meaning, as a man hit by a car is allowed to bleed to death and die, filling a corpse quota later, because no one acts or intervenes from their own precarious footpath.  Suicides over slights or simply the burden of life, whether young or old, are still tragic.

I wish I had left Boo’s book the way I came to it, still suspicious of the author with an easy rationale for discounting the reality lurking behind the lines.  Dickens was more upbeat.  This is a feel bad book.  I don’t know how to recommend it, even as I walk in Mumbai today, until I have a way to argue with the afterword, and whether what should come next, has any chance of happening in India or elsewhere today.


India Right to Education Act and the Struggle for Equity amidst Corruption

Street Scene in Old Delhi

Delhi   As the United States confronts the issues of inequity it continues to be sobering in the improving economy of India to see how severe inequity can become and what it takes to try to catch up.   A good example of the effort is the new Right to Education (RTE) Act which reserves 25% of the placements in private schools for children classified among the poor.

The educational system in India is successful in the exception more than the rule.  A rigorous system of testing can move the surviving students to elite schools in the country and inequitable resources can purchase access anywhere of course, but the schools are plagued by inadequate infrastructure and an undertrained, underpaid, and often casual teaching workforce rued as much for its absence from the classroom as its success between the desks and the blackboard.  The thin funding structure and diversity of educational options has also created a wide number of private schools that range from informal operations to luxurious facilities like the American School in Mumbai with steep tuition.

The RTE seeks to move some of the burden and responsibility for both equity and education to the private school system.  There is little process for selection though other than the fact that the applicant child must have an APL (Above Poverty Line) or BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration card.  Even the APL card indicating you are above the line only means that your income is in the range of 50 cents US per day and of course the BPL is even lower, so in each case a family is desperately poor.

Without a secure recruitment system the widest speculation is that there will be easy corruption.  Few with whom I’ve talked to on this trip think that the bribe for a ration card if wanted would be difficult to obtain and many think that family, friends, and connections will swamp the 25% allotment without any outreach to nearby slums or systems for processing people fairly.  There are sterling examples like the Holy Family School in Mumbai and Mahindra United World College outside of Pune that had served as models for the legislation for the diversity and social integration that they had created without the RTE legislation, so there is no doubt that it can be done and done well.

ACORN India cares because in Mumbai our organization of wastepickers in Dharavi actually has young ragpickers teaching recycling and some joint programs with a number of private schools, including the American School, so we can hardly contain ourselves at the prospect of being able to help route some of your young pickers into these institutions there.  In Delhi where we are also running homeless shelters for up to 300 workers and families per night in the central part of the city, we could easily route children through a process.

Good intentions and poor implementation don’t just pave the road to hell.  They also sentence many to continue to live in hell, and despite the excitement of the new legislation, it is hard for us to not be cynical about the likely results.

More of Old Delhi