Day: November 4, 2008

Campaigns and Victories: India

ACORN India has an impressive range of victories. The India FDI Watch has used the power of mass mobilization, coupled with an effective media strategy, to raise the profile of the issue of Wal-Mart’s entry into India.

In November, 2006, the campaign mobilized hundreds of hawkers, street vendors and social activists to warn the government not to allow FDI in retail sector. In January 2007, the Chairperson of the ruling alliance UPA, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, publicly warned the Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh about the dangers posed to the economy and to communities by allowing multi- national companies to grow rapidly and without regulation across India.

In February 2007, upon the arrival of a senior Wal-Mart executive to India to sign a deal with Bharti, the India FDI Watch campaign organized press conferences and public demonstrations in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. As a result of these demonstrations, Sonia Gandhi refused to meet with the executive in Delhi. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) responded to the campaign by recommending that Wal-Mart’s entry be delayed until a Special Task Force of interest groups, including unbiased academic institutions, has had the chance to study the issue.

The campaign gained a lot of strength in spring 2007. In April 2007 FDI India watch and its partners staged the National Convention to Resist Corporate Hijack of Retail in Delhi. At this Convention and later meetings, the plan to form a National Steering Committee was agreed upon and later implemented. The movement was given a name: “National Movement for Retail Democracy.”

In 2007, we also collaborated with research organizations and academic institutions on a case study that qualitatively and quantitatively documented how large retailers and malls had already harmed the sales of surrounding small businesses and hawkers in Mumbai, which was published in the journal “Economic and Political Weekly.” Finally, we supported the research of a Mumbai academic documenting the working conditions and wages of workers in the enterprises of Indian suppliers to Wal-Mart.

In 2008, the campaign has gained more visibility. It has reached out to and collaborated with other international organizations working on issues of development in India.

In spring 2008 Mr. Dharmendra Kumar, the director of India FDI Watch, was invited to speak to the British All Parliamentary Group in London, England.

On 1st May 2008, on the occasion of Workers Day, in a march of rag pickers to the Delhi state assembly, 400 of our member rag pickers participated.

On 29th September 2008, hundreds of hawkers under the banner of National Hawkers Federation, a national partner of India FDI Watch, held a demonstration in front of the Metro Shop in Kolkata. The shop is yet to become operational.

ACORN India recently started organizing in the Dharavi squatter community in Mumbai. Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum where some of the largest recycling units of Mumbai are located. ACORN India has recently embarked upon two campaigns in Mumbai called the Dharavi Project and Waste Matters. The main goal of the initiave is to raise awareness about the plights of rag pickers and to generate funds to work towards the redressal. As part of the Dharavi Project, a documentary will be filmed which will be distributed in four languages in schools and colleges. One of Bollywood’s (Indian film industry’s) top music trio will do a music video for ACORN India about its work among the Rag pickers. The trio will also do a show in Mumbai on January 13th, 2009, the proceeds of which will go towards setting up an organization for the Rag pickers. The Dharavi project will bring in artists, school students and architecture students in direct interaction with the rag picker community.

ACORN India has also successfully developed a partnership with Action Aid. Action Aid is funding ACORN India for a three-month (Oct to Dec) research on Hawkers and small retailers in five cities across India.

ACORN India in the process of forming Hawkers’ union in Mumbai. Under the banner of the Hawkers Union ACORN India recently organized a well-attended meeting in Mumbai.

ACORN India’s Work with Hawkers

The other major constituency with whom ACORN India is undertaking an initiative is the hawkers. Hawkers are street vendors who sell stuff from portable carts. A large chunk of the population of India still buys daily food, and even clothes, books, newspapers from these street vendors. Hence the emergence of big retail stores like Reliance and others is a direct assault on the livelihoods of the hawkers.

With the advent of the New Economic Policy in 1991, the face of urban India is slowly but surely changing. In this era of globalization, privatization and market forces, big corporate retailers are becoming the vogue of the day and are often called the new face of the shining India. The brunt of this rampant corporatism and the big private business mentality is being borne directly by the hawkers.

Hawkers are one of the most important social and economic service providers in India. On the one hand they provide affordable services to the urban population; one the other hand they give the small scale and home based industries a platform for survival as these hawkers are the only selling source for these industries. 

Hawkers also play a very important role in the overall urban economy. They are the second larges workforce in the unorganized sector. The total turnover of hawkers in Mumbai is Rupees 120 billion (USD 2.4 billion), in Delhi Rupees 100 billion (USD 2.0 billion) and in Kolkata Rupees 88 billion (USD 1.8 billion). Despite such tremendous contribution towards the economy, the 10- million odd street vendors, or hawkers, in India—a large number of them working and living in major urban centers like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata—face a serious threat to their livelihood from the corporate retailers. This in turn further endangers the livelihoods of million of others connected from informal sector of the economy.

Retail trade is the single largest component of the services sector in terms of contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of India. It amounts to 14 per cent of the service sector. The total number of retail outlets (both food and non-food) was 8.5 million in 1996 and 12 million in 2003.

In the past couple of years, big corporate firms such as Subhiksha, Reliance, Aditya Birla Group, Spencers, Big Apple etc. have entered the Indian retail market. According to estimates for every one job generated by corporate retail companies about 15 existing informal sector jobs will get destroyed. Thus an estimated 40 million of workers including street vendors, hawkers and small shop owners stand to lose their livelihood if the expansion of corporate firms is allowed to go unchecked. The situation is going to be grave if the government allows FDI in retail paving the way for predatory firms like Wal-Mart to directly enter India.

ACORN India has also successfully developed a partnership with Action Aid. Action Aid is funding ACORN India for a three-month (Oct to Dec) research on Hawkers and small retailers in five cities across India.

ACORN India in the process of forming Hawkers’ Union in Mumbai. Under the banner of this Hawkers’ Union, ACORN India recently organized a well-attended meeting in Mumbai.

On 29th September 2008, hundreds of hawkers under the banner of National Hawkers Federation, a national partner of India FDI Watch, held a demonstration in front of the Metro Shop in Kolkata. The shop is yet to become operational.

 

What Are Waste Pickers?

Waste pickers are the people who actually go through the garbage bins to pick out the things we discard as waste. These waste pickers- women, children, and men are from the lowest rung in the society, are a common sight in most cities and towns around the country. Waste picking is considered the most menial of all activities and it is people who have no other alternative that are generally driven to it. They contribute a great deal to waste management as they scavenge the recyclable matter thereby saving the municipality the cost and time of collecting and transporting this to the dumps

Some facts about the waste pickers:

  • The waste pickers and kabaris pick up recyclable waste, such as paper, plastics, metals etc. Waste pickers pick up and recycle almost 15-20 % of the garbage and are the backbone of recycling sector in Delhi.
  • For every hundred people in Delhi, there is approximately one person who recycles their waste.
  • In all they save the municipality at least 6 lakh rupees daily. They save municipal authorities 24% of their expenses by removing waste from the waste stream. A host of industries receives raw material collected by waste pickers, who thus contribute to saving resources
  • It is the largest informal sector that is cleaning up the city and saving us from the health hazard on a daily basis.

The Biggest Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management

As we know in Delhi there are three civic agencies to manage the city’s waste namely Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and Delhi Cantonment Board (DCB). These are the formal agencies created by the government, but there is also one informal agency doing the same work as these formal agencies. These informal sector workers are the waste picker community. According to one estimate, they pick 15-20 %of the city’s waste thereby saving up to 6-lakh rupees daily for the municipality and the government. But ironically their contribution in keeping the city clean goes unnoticed.

Almost all of the recycling is done through the informal sector, which comprises waste pickers, small buyers, a host of agents and finally the recyclers. The waste collected by the formal agencies directly goes to the landfill. The recyclable items collected from the Dhalaos by the waste pickers are used for recycling. The municipal agencies do not segregate the waste before taking them to the landfill. All the waste are mixed up and dumped in the landfill.

The thousand of waste picker collecting the waste is the backbone of the recycling sector. The informal sector of recycling works like a pyramid. The first layer comprises several hundred thousand men, women and children in urban pockets who mine garbage heaps and bins for recyclable wastes like plastic paper and metals. At the second layer comes the small middlemen, often poor themselves, who buy waste from the waste pickers.

They in turn sell the waste to the third layer, comprising large buyers who own huge godowns. Finally at the top, devouring all the labor and materials from below are the actual recyclers themselves. Most of the city interacts with the first and the second layer, whose labor actually propels recycling in India.

Health Problems

Common health problems faced by waste pickers as a result of their present working conditions are:

  • Physical injuries like cuts and pricks are common among them. This is result of poor segregation at source and the non-usage of protective gloves.
  • Heat during the summer months cause dizziness and nausea as the decomposed waste emits a strong smell.
  • Back pain due to manual work and pushing of trolleys is a problem faced by some collectors.

Assessing the health impact of the programme on waste pickers is a difficult task. A waste picker’s health is affected by a variety of factors like living conditions, eating habits, personal hygiene, etc.

Work Among Ragpickers in India

Mountains of garbage dump in New Delhi, the capital of India. A slum dwelling in the backdrop of sky scrappers in Mumbai, the industrial capital of India. Not matter where you go, the other side of the India reality stares you in the face. Children playing in what is a black mountain of garbage. These are the children of the Rag pickers. And this is a very common sight in major cities in India. India lives in many centuries at the same time.

Slums are everywhere in Indian cities and they stare you in your face. The sprawling shantytowns, with dwellings made of polythene sheets, cardboards, rags, tin, mud, occasionally bricks and practically anything that can be used in putting up a shelter from sun and rain, can be seen along the railway lines, along the boundary walls of factories and offices, along roads, in the river beds, along the open canals and large drains that carry the city waste, on any piece of vacant land often belonging to the municipality or to other public institutions.

These are slums home to the migrant laborers. Large scale livelihood based forced migration has been on ascendance in India over the last couple of decades and it will be a major phenomena to contend with even in the future. Since the economic liberalization in 1991, India is on a path of accelerated capitalist growth, which results in people flocking cities in hope of livelihood and better lives. The old Indian agragarian system is becoming obsolete and young people are migrating to big cities to earn a living and in hope to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. The “Indian Dream” or the Indian version of the “American Dream”. 

Recent decades have witnessed rapid urbanization all over India. During the period 1991-2001 the overall urban population growth rate has been 31 per cent. In comparison, the overall population growth during the same period has been 21 per cent, and the growth rate of the rural population has been 18 per cent. Large urban agglomerations have gone through particularly explosive growth. Largest 35 among these now account for 11 per cent of the total Indian population. 

You may ask who are these Rag Pickers, what are their stories and why should we help them?

Rag pickers are the people who scavenge through the colossal waste the city produces every day. This trash comes from homes, offices, small businesses, factories, shops and almost every other activity that a city engages in. Garbage dumps are often out in the open, by the roadside. Since the mechanized facilities for separating recyclable material out of this waste are almost non-existent, this task is accomplished manually by the waste pickers. They collect recyclable waste and trash from various places in the cities including plastic bags, plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal scraps, used bulbs and fluorescent tube lights, rejected vegetables, fruits and kitchen waste, old medicines, paints, chemicals, containers of different chemical products of factories, batteries, clothes and other objects soiled with bodily fluids like excreta and vomit. They even pick things from dumps of hospital waste. They collect anything that has a resale value or can be recycled. They have no protection gear on them while doing all this hazardous work. Their nose and mouth are not covered; they use their bare hands and walk in such dumps with bare foot. Even basic needs like facemasks, gloves, sticks and boots are unavailable to these workers who engage in an extremely hazardous profession.

There are no exact data available on how many rag pickers are there in India. Some reports suggest between approximately 2 to 2.5 million people engage in this profession, with over 300,000 in Delhi alone. The living conditions in the slums are inhumane to say the least. The waste pickers in Delhi are responsible for saving the government up to 6 lakh (600,000) rupees (12,000 USD) per day. Despite this, their work is not officially recognized or protected, and they undergo regular harassment at the hands of public officials and civilians alike. Their lack of recognition also prevents them from public benefits such as social security or healthcare coverage, and puts them at the constant mercy of private recycling companies.

It is in this backdrop that ACORN India is engaged in the process of building a membership base amongst the waste pickers so that they can secure protections to their livelihoods and persons.

ACORN India has won small yet significant victories that ensure better working conditions for these rag pickers. The rag pickers associated with ACORN India are now provided with masks to cover their faces, gloves and boots and sticks to scavenge through the garbage. ACORN India recently started organizing in the Dharavi squatter community in Mumbai. Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum where some of the largest recycling units of Mumbai are located. ACORN India has recently embarked upon two campaigns in Mumbai called the Dharavi Project and Waste Matters. The main goal of the initiave is to raise awareness about the plights of rag pickers and to generate funds to work towards the redressal. As part of the Dharavi Project, a documentary will be filmed which will be distributed in four languages in schools and colleges. One of Bollywood’s (Indian film industry’s) top music trio will do a music video for ACORN India about its work among the Rag pickers. The trio will also do a show in Mumbai on January 13th, 2009, the proceeds of which will go towards setting up an organization for the Rag pickers. The Dharavi project will bring in artists, school students and architecture students in direct interaction with the rag picker community.

Almost 35 percent of India’s population still lives on less than a dollar a day. Developing economies like India are emerging as the next frontiers of market expansion. The onslaught of mindless corporatism results in denial of basic rights like water, sanitation, education and health, right to land and a life free of evictions, and basic human dignity. It is in face of such big challenges that ACORN India is looking to mobilize these vulnerable communities to fight for their basic rights and in process empower themselves.

ACORN International organizes expertise abroad

ACORN International (now Community Organizations International) was formed to share grassroots organizing experiences with families and friends in their home countries and to improve the lives of people around the world.

Because low-income workers are often forced to migrate for work opportunities to support their families, many have connections in other countries. Corporations also cross borders in search of cheaper workforces and more lenient government policies. For this reason, ACORN International wanted to share their successful strategies, fighting exploitative corporations and abusive economic policies.

ACORN International has expanded throughout the Americas and to India, defending citizens and workers suffering from globalization in the 21st century. Corporations often rely on the separation between nations to take advantage of workers despite the similarity of their issues. ACORN International focuses on the challenges faced by all low-income families, regardless of nationality.

ACORN International’s history began 38 years ago in Little Rock, Ark., in the wake of the U.S. civil rights and social movements of the 1970s. Now, ACORN International takes the wealth of that experience to the world.


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