I have met these women in another life. On top of a large refuse tip, the place they called home, in Recife, Brazil. Women who blended into their surroundings, filthy and cowed. They, and their children were tiny, the mothers half my size, the physical embodiment of severe deprivation.
Next to one of Mumbai’s many refuse tips, we are joined in a room by thirty or so litter pickers, women who daily each collect and sell between 40 and 50 kilo of recyclable garbage. If their burden were in a suitcase at an airport it would have a ‘heavy’ label attached.
There are 22,000 litter pickers in this city.
But the women we meet in Mumbai are as tall as my daughters, and better dressed. They speak with confidence, and with pride about their lives and the prospects for their children.
At the turn of the century, three or so thousand of the women joined Self-Help Groups, and organised. They started from a low base. Many are Dalit, the lowest caste. Excluded from formal education they were illiterate and sent to the tips by their parents to work to support their family.
The Self-Help Groups were offered not as an alternative to this hazardous lifestyle. They were a locus of training. How to stay safe, how to organise, how to lead. They were a place of innovation. Why carry the waste a long distance to a vendor who may or may not pay the going rate? Why not set up an intermediary, owned by the women, to collect the recyclables at the gates of the tip? They were source of human rights and recognition that their work placed them at the vanguard of the fight against the effects of climate change.
hey end with a song, more like a chant, an incantation to take notice. They sing of reducing the city council’s burden, and repairing the earth from the damage caused by human greed. “Don’t burn your waste.”, they call out, “You are burning our livelihood, and the environment.”