Notes from the field

I’m a Community Manager with Kabadiwalla Connect. One of my tasks is to find and map the kabadiwalla shops in the city. So, far I have mapped 100 kabadiwallas. I jumped into this mapping within a day of joining, so I was very nervous. As I headed out, I wondered how I would manage this strange new app (ODK) that I was supposed to use. Standing in front of the first kabadiwalla, I hesitated. How would the man standing in front of me react if I ask to interview him?

When I started I knew nothing of kabadiwallas or the informal waste sector but talking to them was an eye-opening experience. The first time, the kabadiwalla shot back so many questions at me that I was flustered but slowly I made progress. I learnt to handle the conversation better. I learnt to explain our work briefly, focusing on our cool information service on which they would feature. Often they would work as they chatted with me or they would stop talking and finish with a customer and then come back to me. Sometimes if they were very busy they would get irritated and wave me away. Others would ask detailed questions of our work and we would have long chats, so much so it would feel like I was the one being interviewed!

Walking up and down small roads is hot work. Asking people if they knew of any pazhaiya porul shops nearby often can give results, but sometimes I would be sent back to a shop I had just covered! Sometimes I would find a bunch of these shops. I think the maximum number of shops in one street that I found was 35 shops. It could be frustrating but a useful tip I picked up was that these kabadiwallas always had plastic bottles hanging in front of the shop. A good visual cue! A fun discovery was that one particular shop I was mapping was the one featured in the recent hit Tamil film, kaaka muttai. Apparently, thanks to this national-award-winning movie, the shop has become famous in the locality.


photo courtesy: Gayathri Nair

In one area, I was pleasantly surprised to find a woman running a kabadiwalla shop. She has had the shop for 15 years, ever since she migrated from her hometown after her husband left to Sri Lanka for a job and never returned. Today, she manages the business with her son.

One day, as I was returning to office after mapping, something that one of the kabadiwallas said stuck in my head. He spoke of how there is no awareness among people about waste segregation, and that nobody bothers about where the waste ends up. It got me thinking and I am ashamed to admit I had not myself thought much of this issue though I have read and seen programmes on the problem.

As I drove, I started noticing the amount of garbage on the roads and began thinking what if the corporation collection fails? Maybe it will take a day or two to fill up the bin then it will start overflowing on to the streets. In short we will have a mini dump yard in our street. The stink would be terrible, animals will mess up the place, making conditions perfect for the spread of diseases. This is exactly how a dump yard looks so obviously a dump yard is not the solution. We need to recycle and compost waste! And the kabadiwallas that I map can help!


photo courtesy: Gayathri Nair

As I mapped these shops, I wondered who are these kabadiwallas, where do they come from? It seems most of them hail from Tirunelveli and Tuticorin areas. Most of them pray to the same god, Mutharamman. I wonder if there is a potential research topic there for a PhD! I gathered some other random pieces of information. For example, most kabadiwallas have not studied beyond 10th standard. This did not surprise me but what I found shocking was how laid back they are about handling waste. They are unconcerned about their health. Often they cut themselves on metal waste, but they don’t stop to get an TT or anything. I guess their focus on work and eking a living is so great that they brush aside such seemingly minor things. They sure have a work ethic; 70 per cent of them are open throughout the week, while the rest typically close shop on a Friday or Sunday.

The kabadiwallas were, for the most part, happy to hear we were mapping their shops and making it easier for people to locate them and send recyclable waste to them. However, it is upto us as citizens to take a few minutes to compost and recycle our waste. If we composted organic waste, and recycled paper, plastic and glass, we could keep 60 per cent of our waste from going to landfills! Imagine that! And as a bonus we earn some money too and so does the kabadiwalla! A win-win situation for all, isn’t it?

So when are you going to start responsibly managing your waste?

written by Jagan Karthick G.