Mumbai I had a sleepless night in Bengaluru, filled with excitement about our progress in unionizing informal workers and always mindful of the constant challenges of early morning flights in the “jams” of India, all of which combined to leave me exhausted once I hit the Juhu Beach area in Mumbai around noon. No time for whining though, Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director in the city, was due to pick me up within an hour or so, for us to try to rendezvous with Suresh and some of our Bengaluru street vendor leadership who had bused and trained from 18 to 24 hours for a rally to help formulate national hawker demands of any new government.
Vinod had not received a call from Suresh on his mobile as planned with the exact location, and I suspected he had run out of battery on his cell, which turned out to be an easy guess. We went to the address of the union building helping to coordinate the rally. Vinod and I had been there before several years ago thinking we had an appointment that didn’t materialize, but somehow everything now looked different and the scribble-scratch I had with me lacked any recognizable landmarks. In this old area that had once been one worker colony after another laboring in the giant textile mills in the heyday of colonialism to be shipped to Britain and its world, everything was being uprooted for sky high development, but added to that challenge we were riding under 100-foot concrete stanchions that were designed to hold a coming extension of a monorail or metro of sorts, financed by the World Bank and IMF. The landmarks might be there, but they were now invisible, though, as we know sadly in city after city in the United States, not as invisible as they will be when they become part of the permanent shadow lands suffocating under these tracks. Architecturally it was almost an engineering feat of sorts that they could even get the supports squeezed to the street edge of these narrow byways.
Vinod stopped at a police station and sure enough we had only barely overshot, having missed the mosque across from the hall which was the missing clue. A run up the stairs gave us a new location not too far away, and by 330 we found our men in front of the rally site, though we had missed by minutes the end of what had been a 7000-strong convocation, rallying around the demands. After a good briefing with our leaders, tea from the workers’ canteen, and quick goodbyes, we scooped up Suresh and were off to meet others including an Alejandro, who wanted to do a radio interview from his class in Berkeley, as it developed, about ACORN’s work in Dharavi and its connection to the Mumbai music scene because of our increasingly well-known ragpicker band, Dharavi Rocks, that can make our plastic recyclable bins into a massive drum circle.
Jumping out at our sorting center in Dharavi though, watching my step, Vinod pointed to his left, and said, “Wade, see this!” There to my great surprise was the truck we had been trying to acquire throughout the last year in order to expand our members ability to pick up dry waste from the scores of schools and colleges who had agreed to let us collect. We had raised a small bit of money from friends and supporters for what Vinod had estimated might allow us to get a small, used pickup, but this was something different: a brand-new, Tata van of sorts with a specially built enclosure in the back to allow us to pile the waste in. In short this was a beauty to behold with ACORN Foundation and Dharavi Project on the front and all sides, and everything but the classic “horn please” on the back which seems mandatory for most Indian vehicles of the sort. Some of our members and pickers could hardly wait to get the keys and let me slide in the seats, of course still plastic covered. I passed on the offer to drive.
It turned out we had just bought the truck in the last month, so Vinod was enjoying every minute of his surprise. When I said, but, “hey, this isn’t used,” he just laughed and replied, “You know, Wade, we decided to go big!”