Ragpickers Diwali

Ragpickers Diwali
October 30, 2008
            Mumbai           As part of ACORN International, ACORN India, and the ACORN Foundation’s program, we have initiated the Dharavi Project, as an initiative for the ragpickers.  I will talk more about this in coming days, because it is an exciting project and an interesting and different strategy for us to approach the organizing.  As part of our debut, the project and ACORN Foundation hosted a Diwali Party in Dharavi for some of our ragpickers, volunteers, and other potential partners. 
            The Diwali tradition includes such celebrations, eating, lots of sweets, wearing new clothes, and the giving of gifts.  Before the evening was over we had more than 100 people at our party.  The majority were ragpickers and their families. 
            Looking out from the open space we had rented at the top of the 3rd floor building, I could see the lower roofs of Dharavi all around me in the dusk.  On many roofs there were boys, young men, and even some of their father and uncles perched on the roof top flying small kites towards the clouds in the horizon.  The night was humid and still, but with skill they worked the string to move these colorful squares of plastic, higher and higher.
            More moving were some of the shy stories coaxed from the ragpickers of their work and lives, which they shared during the program.  In the beginning nothing but the men spoke.  Many had been doing the work for ten years or more.  Young men, looking hardly twenty years old, spoke of having worked since boys as ragpickers.  One man, somewhat older, speaking slowly, powerfully stated, shyly and in stumbling words, that it was simple for him:  he worked every day, if he did not work, he would starve and die.  The pay seemed to range from 100 to 200 rupees per day for the work.  At roughly 50 rupees to the US dollar that would be $2 to $4 dollars per day. 
            One young man startled as he spoke in monotones and told his story.  He made it enough every day to hardly live with 5 or 6 other young men, several of whom sat stolidly near him.  He made enough to buy drugs which are how he made it through the pain and torment of the work.  The drugs ran from heroin to cocaine to industrial glues, which were widely available.  As someone sitting next to me calmly translated the Hindi for me, it felt like I was hearing a story of a young man, no older than my own children, trying to live every day, simply to die with less pain.  It was sobering to hear.
            When finally the women began to speak, laughing and sometimes covering their mouths with embarrassed, shyness, the wages fell as well to 70 to 100 rupees or so for work that tended to range from 10 in the morning to 6 pm in or longer and interspersed with stopping the collection to tend to children, cooking, and family.  As young as the men looked, even the young women, some with babies in arms, carried a hard age with them already. 
            This was a time for dancing and laughing though and with help everyone was soon on the floor jumping and gyrating to the pumping Hindi beat of Bollywood tunes sometimes or at others a kind of Hindi rap.  It was Diwali still.  Life goes on.  Work is hard.  This is the way it is.

            Another welcome to Dharavi!

            In the contradictions that are Bombay, I also ended up talking to some of the volunteers, several of whom worked for outsourcing companies on contract to US operations, particularly banks and finance.  One fellow handled Wells, AIG, and Lehman Brothers.  The other had been part of Lehman Brothers and was part of the Asian operation sold recently to the large Japanese concern.  They had faint praise for the companies.  One knew that Wells Fargo had cut lending even before we had seen it in the US.  As local as waste picking and recycling seem, this was a quick reminder of the global economy.  When I arrived there had been articles about some job losses in Bangalore and elsewhere due to the combination of Wells Fargo and Wachovia as well as other pieces of the banking meltdown.  Estimates indicated 3000 jobs might be lost in the combination.  Talking to people working in the industry around Bombay, there was solid optimism that as long as the wage differential held up, most were not worried that the jobs were going anywhere soon. 
            Part of the conversation, so juxtaposed in dark night of Dharavi with the fireworks of Diwali lighting up the sky, made me think I was simply hearing about another kind of waste picking, just in cleaner conditions with skirts and ties.
           

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Dharavi Recycling Centers

Dharavi Recycling Centers


            Mumbai           The Dharavi neighborhood is famous in Bombay at least as famous as a mega-slum can be with almost a million people living in a slum almost in the center of the city on what remains of all wetlands from the rancid remains of a river running to the Indian Ocean through the last, protected stands of mangroves in Mumbai.  Give the size of the slum and its location, there is almost no need to tell experienced organizers that there is a world of development pressure on the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) from a host of developers to allow them to raze what is there now and put in upscale housing and malls within a hair of this huge city’s heart.
            Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director, and I accompanied by a young guide who lives in Dharavi spent hours walking through the narrow alleys and catacombs of the slum for two simple reasons.  We met at the Mehim train station, walked on the bridge over the railway tracks, and found Dharavi all around us. 
First we wanted to get a handle on where the workers we were organizing were living to we could understand the community organizing opportunities and challenges, and, secondly, we need to understand the end sourcing of the recycling industry for our ragpickers.  Perhaps surprising to outsiders is the fact that the teeming slum is a mask for a symbiotic set of small — and large — industries that produce the end products from recycling, tanning, and other smaller operations everywhere in Dharavi.  Another way of looking at Dharavi is that it is an industrial zone surrounded and concealed by substandard housing, rather than a the typical conception of a slum that simply provides inadequate housing for workers close to low skill or service jobs in the city core. 
Technically, we were taking a look at the industry on a Dewali holiday.  There were no newspapers printed today.  Many elsewhere were off of work.  Needless to say we found the recycling industry bustling, making it hard to even imagine what it would be like at full capacity.  We would come around the corner of some narrow alley way and find a hearth at full temperature to heat down the plastics that had come on the backs of ragpickers.  We climbed to the roofs to see areas on top of the low buildings that were used for drying, then bagging.  Under the roofs were, stacked to the ceilings were the mini-warehouses waiting for the orders.  Repeat this process and name the items and it was here in Dharavi for processing:  cleaning, sorting, heating, processing, drying, bagging, and away.  We saw the process for paint cans, plastic jerry cans, cell phone batteries, plastic bottles, and, even rags.  It was really quite amazing to see the level of machinery constantly surprising us behind an open walkway or around the one corner or another. 

Besides the major recycling process — the Dharavi operator association has 1200 members if that gives a sense of scale here — we walked through other parts of Dharavi where we hides being tanned from the skinning to the cutting to the lacquering and painting; we saw one section where dozens of kilns stood that made earthen pots of all sizes; we saw rooms full of sewing machines stitching wallets; we saw a eggs being jobbed out for sale everywhere; and, we felt if we had stayed longer, there was no limit to what else we might have uncovered behind the open doors of Dharavi.  We even walked upon a sizeable Dharavi factory maintained and run for decades by the American company, Johnson & Johnson, which utilizes goat innards to manufacture sutures.  We saw the goats, too! 
Trucks of all sizes line every roadway bringing product in and out of the slum.  If this is a secret, it is certainly an open one.  It also goes without saying that the smells, fumes, and byproducts of these industrial operations are dangerous and are providing both life and death to many of the workers simultaneously.  Dharavi is a no shoes, no gloves, no masks, no nothing work zone. 
All of the development plans are caught on the argument of whether to build apartments in high rises for the slum dwellers of Dharavi in the size of 300 square meters, which the developers want, or 400 square meters, as many residents and political parties have demanded.  There seems no plan for the informal work spaces that residents need to earn their living under either of those size limitations, and it goes without saying there is no plan to relocate these thousands of smaller manufacturing and processing facilities and the tens of thousands of jobs that they provide to reassemble them in the bowels of shopping malls and high rise luxury housing.
This is a battle royale shaping up for the future of many in Mumbai.  It almost seemed breathtaking for ACORN India and ACORN International to be able to be a part of this great struggle.

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