Meet this nation’s reviled group

By | May 13, 2019

Down a dusty road southwest of the city of Bangalore, on a cramped rubbish dump in the shadow of an apartment block, lives a family of India’s Dalit.

Shunned by Indian society, the Dalit are among the most marginalised people in the world, working as waste pickers at a camp known as Shaktiman’s van unit.

Traditionally considered thieves for picking up rubbish once belonging to others, they are used to being beaten, spat upon, arrested, having dogs set upon them, exploited or just ignored.

Until recently, they didn’t legally exist.

Known in India as Dalit, or India’s lowest caste, Shaktiman and his family live among the rubbish they sort — metal, paper, wood, and mountains of plastic — in makeshift humpies they made themselves.

Like most waste pickers his age, 40-year-old Shaktiman is illiterate and began picking as a child.

Shaktiman, his wife Baby, 35, daughters Sonia, 22 and Dolly, 20, and his three sons are among the 16 men and nine women who live at the trash heap on just over half a hectare of land.

Pushed further to the edges of the hi-tech metropolis of Bangalore in southern India as land prices rise and landlords jack up the rent, Shaktiman has had to move his family four times.

In the last six months, it has expanded with Sonia and Dolly giving birth to a baby boy and girl respectively, the children delivered amid the trash at the camp with the aid of their mother, Baby.

Some of the people in the apartment block above resent living next to the dump and although Shaktiman’s business is entirely legitimate he is plagued by visits from the police asking questions.

But in fact, Shaktiman, an internal refugee from northern India, runs a very tight shop.

And the plastic picked daily and sorted by Dolly, Sonia and Baby and their fellow Untouchables (an older, more derogatory word used by those who believe the touch of a Dalit was considered “polluting” to a caste member) will soon be available — recycled and transformed — in shops around the world.

One day last month as the sun beat down mercilessly on the camp, members of Shaktiman’s crew sat under makeshift shade cloths sorting the rubbish collected by Shaktiman’s van on a daily five hour run.

Independent waste pickers rise around 3am and collect rubbish from the streets while they are empty of people, return home at 7am to get the kids off to school and cook for the family, and then start sorting through the garbage.

Waste pickers earn between 100 and 300 rupees daily ($ 2 to $ 6) and around 4500 rupees ($ 92) a month, compared with the minimum monthly Indian wage, with health care, of $ 315.

Smiling with six-month-old baby girl Marufah in her arms, Dolly — who finished school in year eight, but speaks and understands some English — said she works from 7am to 6pm, with two hours off for lunch, separating the waste.

She proudly showed news.com.proudly around her immaculately kept hut, with separate kitchen, sleeping quarters for herself and husband Ari, 25, who was working in a cloud of white dust at the end of the yard, sorting used flour bags.

Shaktiman’s unit has a toilet and the water supply from a tanker is kept in 10 litre plastic drums outside each hut.

Like all waste pickers news.com.au spoke to Dolly wants a better life for her daughter “to get her educated and make something of herself”.

She also has dreams for herself, getting out of waste picking and making a career ‘in fashion and style”.

Waste pickers are known in India as “chapper”, which literally means carrying stolen goods on one’s shoulder.

But from this weekend, Dolly’s dreams of a better future may be in sight.

As Lee Mann, Global Community Trade Manager of The Body Shop (TBS) said on the ground at the visit to Shaktiman’s camp in early April: “The planet is drowning in plastic.

“But not using plastic is not the answer. Plastic is a fantastic medium, and there is an abundant amount of recyclable plastic.

‘These people live very, very hard lives and all we’re saying is they deserve a fair price for their work, free of exploitation.”

A unique set of circumstances and people — a Canadian farm boy turned plastics executive, Indian husband and wife social entrepreneurs and hundreds of Bangalore’s Dalit — have conspired to put the plastic picked by Dolly et al on boutique shelves.

From this weekend the plastic — recycled and transformed — picked up by these Indian Dalit will sit on the shelves of the ethical beauty chain, The Body Shop (TBS).

Part of a joint operation to help India’s most disparaged and reduce waste, the plastic has been regenerated in Europe and turned into bottles housing TBS Ginger Shampoo.

Trialled with ten tonnes of plastic last November, TBS in concert with Canadian-born CEO of Plastics For Change created one of the clearest plastic products in packaging history from material collected by the Bangalore pickers.

“We are extremely strict about what goes into our supply chain,” Lee Mann said.

“Only food grade recycled plastic goes in.

“We are starting with just the ginger shampoo, a bottle of which sells every four seconds … around the world.”

Back across Bangalore, to the east of the city, three women aged in their mid to late 40s were sitting amid a stinking pile of rubbish in a barn-like building where, at night, rats reign over the heap.

The filthy room piled with plastic bags spilling with garbage is a segregation centre run by former waste picker Krishna.

It is part of the Hasiru Dala, the waste management company of husband and wife, Nalini Shekar and Shekar Prabhakar.

Located in the small town of Domlur, Krishna’s centre is foul smelling and infested with flies.

It is however considered an oasis by the women who work there because they know their 350 rupees ($ 7.15) a day plus food will be paid on time without exploitation by a middle man or scrap shop haggling down the price.

Krishna pointed at Veerana who sat grinning as her hands moved ceaselessly between a pile of rubbish in front of her and ten different bags arranged within arm’s reach.

With a curator’s eye, the 45-year-old deftly sorted ten different sorts of waste — including varying grades of plastic — into the bags around her.

Through an interpreter, Veerana said she was “very happy and proud” to work there because it meant she was “able to educate my children and give them a better life”.

Rani, 48, who works alongside Veerana, came from Tamil Naidu 20 years ago to Bangalore where she lives in a slum next to a tin factory with her husband, who works as a porter.

Rani said that if she didn’t work “my family would not have food to eat” and that working at the centre was “better than having to go out in the street” to pick waste.

Krishna’s centre is one of the Bangalore centres run by Nalini and Shekar’s non-profit Hasiru Dala (which mean “green force” in Kerala language) to create predictable livelihoods and a voice for waste pickers.

India’s first “polluter pays” waste company, Hasiru Dala has had to compete with an increasingly mafia-style dominated industry in which competitors hijack or destroy their its trucks.

“The caste system is beginning to retreat in the cities,” Shekar Prabhakar told news.com.au, “however in the country it is still in force.”

The couple formed the first waste pickers’ union and now have 230 mostly women full-time workers diverting 900 tonnes of waste monthly from landfill.

To do it, they had to smash city hall, recruiting 3500 waste pickers each put in 50 rupees ($ 1).

Plastic makes up 45 per cent of a waste picker’s revenue and PET (food grade plastic generally drink bottles) sells for 16 to 220 rupees (30 to 45 cents) a kilogram.

In 2014 the India High Court formally recognised the existence of waste pickers, who are now no longer legally considered thieves.

The waste pickers were then able to get a precious ID card which meant they became masters of their own destiny, open a bank account and, some for first time, lodge a tax return.

It has also meant they are registered to work at events consigned to Hasiru Dala, such as IPL cricket matches, art and culture functions and, recently, the wedding of a government minister’s daughter with 18,000 guests.

The women love doing the events, which previously Dalit would have been forbidden from even entering.

“Eating and sharing food is one of the signs of acceptance, drinking water is another sign,” Shekar said.

“This has broken down barriers and given confidence to the waste pickers.

“It has become the in thing to know a waste picker.”

Last year Hasiru Dala and Andrew Almack of Plastics for Change sought out a brand name to launch a project for recycling high grade plastic into a luxury product.

The Body Shop, founded by the late Dame Anita Roddick, the human rights activist and environmental campaigner, dovetailed perfectly with the plan.

Almack, who made last year’s Forbes 30 under 30 list of innovators and disrupters, grew up in rural Canada and did a university honours thesis which evolved into his ethically sourced plastic recycling business.

Plastics for Change allows waste collectors at the bottom of society to negotiate in advance the price of the plastic bottles they collect before selling it to middlemen.

“This ensures that socially-marginalised individuals receive a fair price,” Almack said.

“We needed a brand to get on board, so I flew to Singapore and chased [a Body Shop executive] down the hall.”

Trialled with ten tonnes of plastic last November, Plastics for Change and The Body Shop created the clearest plastic product in the industry, manufactured in Europe.

The first bottles of ginger shampoo in the plastic picked off the streets of Bangalore has just gone on sale.

But Plastics for Change hopes to recruit more brands into using high grade recycled rather than “virgin” plastic.

“It’s just so easy for them to use virgin plastic, and if you are offering recycled plastic you have to ensure the supply chain so we reverse design it.

“We try to make life as easy as possible for the brand by ensuring if you need 100 tonnes a month you can get it [20 tonnes equals one million medium-sized coca cola bottles].”

At an aggregation centre about an hour southwest of Bangalore in an industrial sector of Kambipura village, the strict science of plastic sorting is on show.

Inside a low-ceilinged warehouse packed to the rafters with walls of crushed plastic bottles, waste aggregators were working in the stifling heat of the day.

Two storyboards on the wall show the good plastic and the bad plastic in a varying sizes and shapes of bottles.

Only clear, no blue or green, and certain labels even on food grade plastic bottles are a no-no.

But workers like Allah Bakash, 49, seem almost to work automatically, sifting out the unacceptable from the good in an eight hour a day job which he took to support his family after his own cookware company ran into losses.

Finally, it was time to meet a group of free-ranging street waste pickers, many of them second or third generation in the trade, now working for Nalini and Shekar at Hasiru Dala.

Annamma, 40, a picker from the age of ten along with her four siblings because they had an alcoholic father, has educated four children to senior standard on her earnings.

She now operates a dry waste centre, employing seven people and recently bought via a bank loan a 1.5 tonne truck for her business, the first waste picker to buy their own truck.

Parveen Taj wept as she told her story, of never attending school because she had to accompany her mother waste picking from the age of eight, as her father “wouldn’t work”.

When her mother gave birth to her brother, Parveen 12, “decided my mother should stay at home and I used to pick up waste to make money for the house”.

She worked from 3.30am to 6pm “to make sure everyone had enough on the plate”.

“You should see her pick and drop, “ Nalini said of Parveen.

“Close your eyes for a minute and she has filled four big sacks.”

Another waste picker from childhood, Indira started out with her sisters collecting animal bones from slaughterhouses and dry batteries, long before India became overrun with plastic.

Now all major waterways in South-East Asia are polluted with plastic.

Indira said she had to work every day from the age of seven, “rain, shine, hot or cold, we got up every morning to do our work and we couldn’t stop picking.

“We had very hard times and people would come and scream at us on the street.

“I’ve had dogs set upon me and it was dangerous on the streets for a young girl.

“I had to work between my two older sisters at the front and the back.

“People would come out to hit me, thinking I was a thief.”

One PET bottle was worth one rupee, but Indira couldn’t just wander into shopping malls to collect them — as a Dalit and a waste picker she was banned from shopping centres.

Hasiru Dala’s oldest picker, Indira said having an ID card meant her children were permitted to study at institutions other than government schools.

She finally had a choice, and her eldest daughter is now studying at one of India’s Central Institute of Plastics Engineering Technology.

“My husband doesn’t drink, but his income is uncertain … he does loading and unloading, but doesn’t have a job every day,” she told news.com.au.

“So most of the money I take care of for the shop, the children’s school, even if it means getting up at 4am and sorting waste.”

Nominated to represent waste pickers at a United Nations conference in Thailand a few years ago, Indira said she now gets recognised and is “treated like a VIP” on the streets.

But her work was still “very hard” and like most waste pickers, her dream is to buy her own house, and “an electrical vehicle which could collect the waste”.

“My children are not ashamed of what I do, they are very proud,” she said.

candace.sutton@news.com.au

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