Tag Archives: mumbai

In Mumbai ACORN’s Ragpickers Start Rolling

1148844_744986442221029_272931984_nMumbai    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.10152408_744986455554361_122118982_n

            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.

           1597253_744986418887698_1439177000_o 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.1956888_744986502221023_421315499_o

            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!”

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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!

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