Tag Archives: wastepickers

Building the Informal Workers Union in Bengaluru and the Health Camp

crowd awaiting health screenings

Bengaluru   For several years in Bengaluru (Bangalore) our main focus has been organizing informal workers into unions, not because it’s easy, but because it’s necessary.  Informal workers in construction, domestic work, street vending or hawking, and wastepicking in the state of Karnataka cannot obtain identification cards and therefore ration cards unless their employer or their union can verify their address.  Besides the normal benefits that come with unionization (solidarity, improved livelihood, collective action and protection), creating a registered union of informal workers allows such workers to qualify for social security and other benefits.

Technically the law in Karnataka had said that a petition had to be signed by 100 or more valid workers in each occupation and a “charter” or registration would be issued to ACORN Bengaluru for a union for domestic workers, a union for construction workers, and a union for wastepickers.   The regulations raj wasn’t moving though and our petitions have now been sitting for 18 to 24 months without action by the state.  A belated May Day action with many joining with us several weeks ago pressed the demands to the state for action, and finally Karnataka has moved to speed up the process of registration for all of our unions.  Today in an all day meeting with one of our large settlements of Dalit construction workers, where 60 members have already signed with our union out of the 200 families living there, our tireless organizer, Suresh Kadashan, was informing the leadership that a final meeting would be happening within two weeks with the registration complete so enrollments could be complete.

The organizing tool Suresh was using this Sunday was setting up a “health camp” in the construction workers squatting settlement on disputed land between a private holder and the railway.  He had convinced a doctor to volunteer and provide health screenings for diabetes, heart, and blood pressure and then out of his pocket provide some simple medicines, the diabetes strips, and referrals if needed to area hospitals.  Over 4 or 5 hours, we provided 99 screenings without the doctor and his equally volunteering nurse taking a break.  On the plus side as a medical process it was the most transparent and community supporting health event that I’ve ever seen.  Everyone clumped around and watched.  They laughed at the pinprick the doc would administer on a finger.  Without prompting, the men stepped back and allowed the women and children to go first for hours and hours.  On the minus side 37 of the 99 tested positive for diabetes across all age groups, which was startling.  The culprit seems to be diet and the fact that most the cooking oils are not refined making them amazingly dangerous (Suresh told me that studies had found 9 of the 10 local companies in violation and having gone to market with bribes rather than filters).  They are killing people stated flatly.  This unusual organizing exercise was felt by Suresh to have been a success today, since the last man to be tested was the informal “mayor” of the village, and seeing the process he gave the union a ringing endorsement after he was examined.

doctor & nurse set up as Suresh Kadashan lends a hand with an ear mite check

Our union of street vendors or hawkers faces greater challenges though in Bengaluru.  The national hawkers law passed by the Indian Parliament in recent years established a similar entitlement for these informal workers to have a union, but left it to each state to determine the ways and means.  Karnataka has essentially sat on the process.  First they claimed to us that they weren’t sure what a “street vendor” was, so we turned in over 2600 surveys filled out by workers (there are an estimated 60,000 hawkers in Bengaluru!), and still nothing.  A committee was finally established late in 2011, but still no real action.  We are committed to political action over the rest of the year and have an agreement from several advocates to file a PIL (public interest lawsuit) before the end of the year to force action.

It’s not easy in India, but slowly but surely, we’re getting it done in Bengaluru!

our doctor volunteer in action


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