Mangai Akka, who became the owner of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart in 2006, talks to me about how juggling the shop and her home has been quite the difficult task for her. By the time she sends off her eldest son and her younger girls to college, she says it’s really late for her to open the shop. This is something that she refuses to compromise on, even though her children are old enough to take care of themselves. To her, the children come first. Widowed at the young age of 24, Mangai Akka tells me her only ambition in life is to make sure her children have the best of everything and that they don’t lack for anything.
We are really excited to announce the launch of a free online information service that can help you find your neighbourhood scrap-dealer! By using this platform, you can ensure that your recyclable waste is being responsibly managed, rather than ending up in a landfill. Scrap-dealers have been collecting waste for decades now and have already formed links with recyclers across the country. This includes both local recyclers, as well as recycling hubs as far as Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi.
In the 1980s, waste-pickers in Colombia faced the most intense forms of social stigmatization and attack. A group of vigilantes, intent on ‘socially cleansing’ the urban landscape, began to launch targeted attacks on what they perceived as unclean elements — whom they referred to as ‘disposables’ — including waste-pickers, beggars and prostitutes. The violence reached a culmination in 1992, when eleven corpses of waste-pickers, harvested of organs, were found at a university in Barranquilla. To this day, the 1st of March is celebrated as Global Waste Pickers’ Day in remembrance of the massacre.
Official attitudes towards informal waste networks vary from city to city, running the gamut from outright rejection to models of partial incorporation. Martin Medina, one of the key authorities in the field, explains how public policy towards waste-pickers and scrap-dealers is generally reflective of societal attitudes towards them.
What do Indian farmers and rag-pickers have in common? At face level, both groups couldn’t be more different: one’s livelihood is based on producing crops, while the other earns a living by salvaging waste. But interestingly, both operate within sectors that are structured in a very inequitable fashion.
This is a post by one of Kabadiwalla Connect’s research interns, Sinduja, who’s a student at IIT-Madras. Sinduja has been involved in collecting data from the field.
When I thought of the area ‘Besant Nagar’, one of the eastern most localities in Chennai city (sharing a border with the Bay of Bengal), I admit that what used to come to my mind was: a) the beach and b) Kalakshetra. Growing up in Chennai, those are the two attractions that I have identified the locality with. However, with the determined purpose of mapping kabadiwalla shops in the locality, I set out one weekend there and what I found surprised me more than I’d like to disclose.
The heart of Besant Nagar can be identified by rows of ‘cross streets’ (Google Maps estimates around 36), housing some of the most upper class, educated and esteemed people in the city. The calmness that meets you when you chance upon these neighbourhoods in the afternoon is almost deafening. There is very minimal human activity, no traffic except for the occasional few vehicles visiting the beach and a sense of laziness creep in. Above all this, there is not a single “maligai kadai” (grocery shop) or any of the other smaller shops (no kabadiwalla shop either) that you would find in such a densely populated residential area. Some of the questions I had after I walked around for over three hours was, “Where are the people? Where is the activity?”
I found the answers to my questions behind the Bus Depot, behind Velankani Church and then behind restaurants like Dhindigul Thalapakatty and Subway. Not just ‘behind’ or ‘inside’ but well concealed. I use these words only because of the stark contrast that hit me once I stepped into these areas. From the calm, there was a sudden shift to chaos; an abrupt burst of activity and noise. The roads were narrower, buildings were crowded, shops flanking either side of the road and the smell of fish pungent. And the kabadiwallas that I hadn’t been able to spot after three hours of walking in what I understood to be Besant Nagar, I spotted immediately. They were situated in what we term to be “slum areas”, except the clients they served and the type of business they run aren’t exclusively a part of the immediate neighbourhood. In my time spent interviewing some of the owners, I noticed quite a few high-end vehicles come drop off cardboard or newspapers and drive away. Mr. Arul, of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart, told me, “We have three branches in this area only. It’s a family business.” And another owner said, “Without us, the city would collapse.”
For a group of businessmen who understand the importance that they have in the area and its workings, it is almost confusing as to why they would be hidden away or absent from what is understood as mainstream Besant Nagar. It might not be due to a conscious effort but it is definitely due to the way we view the area: Besant Nagar as a sophisticated locality overlooking the beach, where people take walks and jog on the pathways, where school and college-going youth come for leisure and where lovers unite. Adding waste-pickers or kabadiwalla shops to the mix definitely puts a dent on the picturesque portrait that Besant Nagar paints. This is not to say that every activity that doesn’t fit the bill is a well-concealed secret. In fact, while walking in the area, I spotted an ironing shop in almost every cross street. The kabadiwalla is as vital to the working of a household as the iron man is. No one wants accumulated newspapers or boxes strewn in their house. And yet, these shops are always a safe distance from the residential portion of the locality.
Is it because we associate the nature of the work that they do to the place that they should be in? That because they collect waste – things we discard and don’t want to see anymore, they too must not be in our direct line of vision? If we take what we understand as Besant Nagar to be the centre of the area, then these shops are most definitely on the peripheries. Do they ruin our beautiful experience of Besant Nagar? On the contrary, I would say they add to it. By taking what we don’t want, they give us our pretty picture of leisure, fun and sophistication. By being hidden, they let us enjoy the sites that are open to us. If we reveal them to ourselves, we open our minds to them and the ‘hidden’ becomes ‘unhidden’ and they gain the legitimacy that they don’t have.
- Written by Sinduja Raja
I was recently reading a bi-weekly news roundup on waste pickers, and it occurred to me that the publication is a great way to help readers see the bigger picture. The free newsletter that I was reading is published by Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The group — it is a global network, and not focussed exclusively on women — is dedicated to the working poor in the informal economy.
Chennai has a thriving informal market for scrap paper; most neighbourhoods have local kabadiwallas who buy paper from homes and other generators at the market price. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, since this paper is a crucial part of a much larger recycling network. It’s rather ironic to note that both the paper currency in our wallets and the scrap paper we sell to kabadiwallas carry value.
Walking through the streets of Chennai, hunting for kabadiwallas, I realised it is a relatively easy job to find them. Interspersed between houses and shops, many of these ubiquitous kabadiwallas often go unnoticed. And yet, they are the core of the informal waste management sector, the silent engines that take part in the process of waste management in the city. And my intention is to understand this ecosystem.
As consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg.
Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.