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Foto: David Lundmark.

Strong women on the garbage dump

Pictures from Piranha

Six days a week, all year round. Indian women are dealing with wild dogs, poisonous garbage and a repugnant stench in their workplace. But they like it, because they are organised and have taken control over their own lives.

Manali Shah, president of Sewa.

Supported by Swedish unions.

Sewa, Self Employed Women’s Association was formed in 1972 in Ahmedabad, northwest India. Only poor women working in the informal sector are welcome as members. They can be anything from garbage pickers or helpers at building sites, to sellers in markets.

Sewa is organising 1.4 million members in half of Indias states. More than 700,000 members are in the state of Gujarat where the multi-million city Ahmedabad is situated. The head quarter is also in Ahmedabad.
Sewa is supported by the two Swedish unions Unionen and IF Metall. Unionen is managing the project which is financed with money from Union to Union The Swedish unions are helping Sewa to build a centre for competence development and also with strategies on how to organise new members. There will also be an exchange of female union leaders between Sweden and India.

“We came into contact with Sewa through another project in India. Sewa is working just as a proper union should be working. It doesn’t mix religion or politics into its activities, says Magnus Palmgren, ombudsman at IF Metall.

The Piranha dump. As big as 118 football pitches and 22 metres tall.

Eyes are running. It is getting harder to breathe. It is smelly. A mixture of excrements, sewage, tyres on fire and rotten food. Around the 4-wheel-drive Mahindra jeep climbing up the mountain a pack of wild dogs are waiting. Some are growling. Others have an aggressive stare. Like a pack of hyenas circling their potential prey. Kantaben Parmar opens the door of the car and climbs out. She speaks in a loud voice, almost shouting, just as she has been doing all the time during the car ride. The dogs and the men driving the city’s garbage trucks lower their eyes and give way as she is approaching her members. This is Kantaben’s territory. She has been involved in recruiting over 100 women to the Sewa union, Self Employed Women’s Association.

Only women working in India’s informal sector are welcome in the organisation: Women who earn a living from picking garbage on streets and dumps; women selling vegetables in markets; women helping out on building sites; women whose role it is to carry heavy loads on their heads; women who don’t have proper job contracts and are without permanent wages.

More than 94 per cent of Indian women work in informal sectors. They are important cogs for the economic wheels to be turning in the country that is expected to pass China in 2022 to have the world’s largest population.
Once again Kantaben uses her strong voice. It echoes across the dump. Her female followers listen and begin making their way through food waste, plastic and all other kinds of waste that are produced by the town’s one million inhabitants.

Suddenly all work on the dump stop for a while. Two rumbling lorries are on their way with valuable garbage. The fast young men, the migrant workers are first in place. A squeaking sound as the platform of the lorry is rising. A new load of steaming garbage is dumped. The stench, that was already corrosive to the lungs, now becomes so intense that it makes the inexperienced feeling sick.

“ It took a month before I was used to the smell”, says Manjulaben Narendrablai Clavda, 37 years old, one of the few women who come to the dump six days a week.

American researchers have found that the air in grbage dump environments is so contaminated that it starts doing damage to the lungs already after one minute. Kantaben is laughing, wagging her head. The head wagging is common among Indians and sometimes hard for Westerners to interpret. This time Kantaben means that it is OK to go and talk to the members. They have gathered a bit further away and they are laying out a blanket that they brought. They sit down right in the middle of the garbage and bring out their lunch boxes. Different rice courses and chapati bread. Hands are washed in water they brought along. Actually, only the surroundings set this lunch break apart from any other in workplaces around the world. Workmates are laughing and sharing jokes. They try each other’s food.

Someone is helping a friend to attach a piece of jewellery in her ear.
As they are sitting down, parts of their lower legs come into view revealing scars from glass and metal garbage and from dog bites.

The money that the Sewa members manage to earn from picking and collecting plastic, paper and metal must cover costs for a whole family. Many of them have men who do not earn much. In spite of that, the men don’t come to the garbage dump. They consider the work to dirty. The men that are here are migrant workers and Indians drivers of vehicles.

Kantaben grew so tired of her husband that she threatened to throw him out. He had lost his job and tried to get over his misery and bad lack by drinking home distilled liquor.

“I told him he was worthless, that I could d take care of our children myself.”

Kantaben Parmar is one of the leaders of Sewa. Foto: David Lundmark

Kantaben was given away for marriage at the age of 15. She didn’t go to school and never learnt to read or write. When she joined Sewa, not only did she experience sisterhood with other poor women, she also gained self-confidence and an insight into her own rights. Kantaben has come to be one of the leaders both on the garbage dump and in the slum area where she is living.

“In the beginning I did not dare to go out on my own.”

It was Kanraben who helped her relative Manjulaben when she came to the big city.
Manjulaben grew up in a village a few hours bus ride from Ahmedabad. Just like many other women in India’s rural areas she married young, and had two sons. Her husband had a job in a small factory in the vicinity and the family led a good life among relatives and friends.

Everything changed the day the husband came home and said that he had lost his job. The young family source of income was gone. Manjulaben still remembers the fear and anger when the move could no longer be postponed. But that was nothing compared to meeting all the people, the traffic, and noises in a big city that never quietens down.

“In the beginning I did not dare to go out on my own.”

The family tried to sustain themselves by selling various things at the market. The income was so scarce that it did not even cover their costs. In the end there was no other way out but Piranha. Before dawn, when it was still dark Manjulaben walked up on the garbage heap. The dogs were growling and barking close by, she did not know if they were going to attack. The smoke from the fires made her throat sore. One leg sank down to the knee in the stinking garbage gruel. The first period was the worst. She felt dirty and filthy. The stench was clinging to her skin and her clothes. Gradually it came to be like any other job.

Manjulaben has been coming to the dump for ten years. In the group there are people who have been working at Piranha for more that 40 years.

Sewa is helping its members with vaccination against tetanus, work gloves and curved picking sticks. Sewa has a total of 30,000 members working with garbage in Ahmedabad.

In fancier residential areas the garbage is collected directly from the households., but lately the government has contracted private entrepreneurs for this work which means that many Sewa members have to go back to picking garbage in the streets. India is very far from the garbage sorting culture that has developed in many industrialised countries. However, the industry has grasped the importance of recycling. Therefore the Sewa people are important in the collection and handling of material. And, not least, it gives a chance for individuals to break lose from the deepest poverty and find a living.

One of the city’s garbage trucks arrives at Piranha with garbage from the multi-million city Ahmedabad in northwest India. The pickers prepare to go through the stinking pile. Various metals are the most valuable. But often the truck drivers sort out the best bits for themselves before they drive up to the dump. Foto: David Lundmark

In addition to helping the members with insights, self-confidence, vaccinations and work tools Sewa has started its own small factories, schools and a bank.

Many women use the bank for hiding money from their men. There are many stories about men, how they take the families’ money and use it for gambling and to get drunk..
“We are helping our members to create a better future for themselves, says Manali Shah, chairman of Sewa in Ahmedabad.

Members can receive grants for school bags and textbooks for their children. The members’ daughters are often the ones working in the small factories.

“I am stuck on the dump but my children can have a better life. That is my consolation”, Manjulaben says.

Her home is in a slum area. The house is a shed with brick walls and a roof of corrugated iron and a door that can be locked. She is sharing her 15 square metres with her husband, two sons and the mother-in-law. In daytime the beds with rope mattresses are put up against the wall to make room for the preparation of food which takes place on the floor. Garlic, coriander and other herbs are crushed in a steel mortar. Kantaben is visiting and helps out. Today’d treat is a vegetarian pot with rice and bread, basic food in many Indian homes.

Manjulaben is dreaming of being able to buy a house of her own and work eight hours a day in an office. In India it is a sign of wealth to be able to purchase rice and flour for a whole year. As things are now the family can make a month at a time.

“The kids have grown. They cost more money. Before I could save more.”

The family gets along and has a decent enough life in Ahmedabad. Most of all Manjulaben wants to move back to her home village. But the chances of finding a work there is even worse.

During the lunch break Manjulaben is helping a friend fixing a piece of jewellery to her ear. Life is tough for the wild dogs on the dump. Foto: David Lundmark

At the dump the lunch is just finished. The blanket is being folded and some dogs stick their noses in the ground to search for scraps of food. Several of the women have a serious cough. One has asthma. Aching backs and joints are commonplace. Still several hours left to work.

Towards the afternoon the heavy bags with sorted material are taken to the scrap dealer’s which is just by the bottom of the heap. The younger ones are helping the older to weigh the waste on an old scale.

The scrap dealer, a man, I writing numbers in a notebook under the supervision of the pickers. Before the money is payed out all of them sit in a ring on the floor having chai tea in small see-through plastic mugs.

The women start getting on their feet. In an adjacent room they wash in a little cold water and change into clean saris. The garbage man takes out a pack of bills and counts the amount he is due to pay. Each rupie is carefully counted by the receiver. On a good day it can amount to the eqivalent of USD 1.5.

There is no risk that the scrap dealer and his male assistants could cheat the women. Kantaben explains:
“50 men can be against me. It does not matter. I know that hundreds of women are backing me.”

English translation: Lars Ryding



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