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Advocacy Project Blogs - 2008 Fellow: Paul Colombini

A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project seeks to help community-based advocates produce, disseminate and use information, and so become more effective advocates for human rights and social justice


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Heading Home

Posted By: Paul

The fall semester at American University is fast approaching, and my time with the wastepickers of Delhi has come to an end, for now. I spent a total of three months working at the Chintan Environmental Research & Action group, May 25th – August 15th 2008. During that period I feel satisfied with having accomplished a lot for on-line advocacy on the behalf of Delhi’s wastepickers. The list of the projects I completed includes:

- Filming over 20 interviews with wastepickers from around Delhi and posting them on the Youtube.com sight I created: www.youtube.com/delhikabari

- Starting a Facebook.com group called “Support the Wastepickers” which now has over 250 members to date

- Maintaining this Advocacy Project Blog, which has now been quoted on a number of environmental and human rights websites, as well as other Blogs

- Writing a number of articles which I hope to get published upon my return to Washington, DC

- Assisting Chintan staff with technical issues and also by putting up job advertisements for them on www.DevNetJobsIndia.org

- Writing a 19-page Chintan Web Manual that gives detailed instructions for how to maintain the sites I created

- Arranging at last, this past week, for a group of wastepickers from Takia Kale Khan colony to come into the Chintan offices, where they were able to watch videos of themselves on the internet and learn how to use Youtube.com

Although I accomplished many things here, I feel that I have gained much more from the experience than I gave. Through my coworkers and the wastepickers I learned about subjects ranging from the intricacies of Indian dining to the complexities of urban waste management. Above all I gained a humbling appreciation for the challanges of life in developing countries and for the people who strive to make this world a better place.

Lastly, I'd like to send heartfelt thanks to all of you who have tuned in and all those who will in the future. Thank you for making this possible.

- Paul Colombini, August 2008

Above: As an Advocacy Project Fellow my mission this summer was to raise awareness of the issues facing Delhi’s wastepickers. I devised the above “Advocacy Web” to draw the most attention to the wastepickers using the internet sites I created on Facebook and Youtube as well as newspaper articles and forums.

Above: Chintan co-workers Sayantani, Anupama and Fouzia demonstrate their always-warm smiles and kindhearted nature at work, and which I will miss when I go home. Below: Yours truly, signing off from Delhi, India. (Photo by Mackenzie Berg)


Meeting the Wastepickers

Posted By: Paul

Every week, members of Delhi’s wastepicker communities gather for meetings to discuss their work, their lives, and their problems. These community meetings are organized by Chintan, and each staff member is responsible for meeting with a different community on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Although the communities are diverse, the goals of the meetings are similar: to help the wastepickers organize themselves to solve their problems, and to help formalize their work. The second goal is addressed by Chintan’s ID card initiative, which provides official wastepicker ID cards.

Reading jokes from my Bengali phrasebook brought smiles at the end of a weekly Chintan wastepicker meeting in Seemapuri, on the outskirts of Delhi. Weekly and bi-weekly meetings are the means by which Chintan stays in contact with wastepickers and helps them organize to address their issues. In Seemapuri, for example, Chintan recently helped female wastepickers organize to demand a toilet for their community (See my previous BLOG below, “The Seemapuri Toilet March.” This photo was taken by Mackenzie Berg

Yogesh, a member of the Chintan staff, prepares to hand out official Chintan Wastepicker ID cards to the attendees at his bi-weekly cycle kabari meeting in central New Delhi. The meeting is held in the famous Lodi Garden, a public park, which is easy for the cycle kabaris to reach and has space for them to park their bicycles. Usually one or two kabaris stand guarding the bicycles during the meeting.

Rajumathur, a Delhi cycle kabari, shows off his new Chintan ID card. Chintan views the cards as the first step towards helping the wastepickers attain professional recognition. According to wastepickers I have spoken to, the main advantage of having an ID card is that Delhi police are less likely to harass wastepickers with IDs. Chintan charges each wastepicker 40 ruppees ($1) per year for an ID card, the cost of producing them. This fee also gives the wastepickers a sense of ownership and pride in their ID cards. Every time I have seen Chintan staff handing out the cards the wastepickers receiving them have been very happy.

Fellow Advocacy Project Fellow Mackenzie Berg meets a cycle kabari at their weekly meeting and asks for a photo. Mackenzie has taken some amazing portraits of wastepickers during our work here and you can see them at this site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mackenzienicole/sets/72157605107403507/

Attending many of the weekly Chintan meetings has given Mackenzie and I a unique opportunity to meet the wastepickers face-to-face this summer and see what genuinely good and hardworking people they are: an experience which I will always remember.


Wastepickers at Work

Posted By: Paul

In his thought-provoking book "Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last," Robert Chambers tells us that poor people's realities are "diverse, dynamic and unpredictable" and that their responses to those realities must necessarily be clever and complex. The wastepickers of Delhi are no exception, and like the poor farmers that Chambers talks about, they have devised many ways to deal with their complicated situations, and many alternative methods for getting an income. Indeed, there is a wide variety of ways by which wastepickers collect trash, and perhaps the only thing which ties the work of all wastepickers together is that they begin early in the morning and don't stop working until late at night.

Some wastepickers use bicycles or tricycles to pick up trash; in this way they are able to carry 40-60 KG of garbage in one trip rather than the 20-40 KG max that can be carried by foot. This kabari has two large bins on his tricycle: one for recyclable waste and one for compostable waste.

Door-to-door kabaris have been able to work out relationships with specific neighborhoods, either through Chintan or independently, whereby they collect waste directly from household owners. This system garuntees them a better and more steady income.

One of Chintan's goals is to help formalize the work of wastepickers so that they can compete with private waste companies directly. Towards this end, Chintan has arranged contracts with several 5-star hotels in Delhi, including the Taj, for wastepickers to sort and pickup their recyclable garbage. Here wastepickers collect garbage from the dumpster behind the Taj hotel.

Another Chintan project called "Metamorphosis" has given the opportunity to several wastepicker women to use their traditional crafts skills in a new way. In the basement of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel, the women work on looms to weave shreds of plastic bags into colorful handbags and wall decorations. These beautiful fashion items are then sold to tourists. Mackenzie Berg wrote an interesting BLOG about this: http://advocacynet.org/blogs/index.php?blog=115

Chintan also provides a sorting-area at a small junk dealer near Bhopura, a suburb of Delhi. Here wastepickers bring bags of garbage for seperating the recyclables. Sorting represents one of the most time and space intensive aspects of wastepicking.

A wastepicker holds plastic bottle necks which have been collected at a small junk dealer in Bhopura, near Delhi. At the end of the day, the benefits of wastepickers' work are twofold, providing both an income to deperately poor people and an efficient means for recycling.

A Site of Their Own

Posted By: Paul

NOTE: The videos in this entry are excerpts from the Youtube site I have created for Delhi's wastepickers: www.youtube.com/delhikabari

An old man with bright eyes and a speckled grey moustache stands in front of the digital camcorder I am holding, and speaks. He speaks about his exasperation with the police harassment and the demands for bribes he encounters frequently in his work; about the constant threat of his job being privatized and taken away; and he vows to fight for his right to do honest work. Next a younger man in more fashionable clothes takes his turn in front of the camera. He speaks softly of the need to educate his children, and asks how he can do that if his industry is privatized and his job taken away? Both men are wastepickers in Delhi, and I am filming their un-prompted comments after a Chintan wastepicker meeting on the beautiful grounds of Lodi Park, amid the crumbling grandeur of dynastic tombs. When I return to the Chintan office, I upload the videos onto the Youtube.com page I have created, called “Delhikabari” where they join almost a dozen other videos I’ve accumulated from wastepickers in different parts of Delhi over the last three weeks. Next I ask my colleague Zeeshan to give me a rough English translation of their comments, and I upload that too. For the first time in their lives, the wastepickers now have a voice on the internet.

My original project here at Chintan was to create a WIKI page which wastepickers could use to communicate with one another and discuss issues important to them. However, the obstacles to this proved difficult to overcome. In meeting with the wastepickers on a weekly basis and talking to my colleagues, I came to the conclusion that none if any of the wastepickers had access to a computer, let alone the internet. True, there were some internet cafes scattered around Delhi, particularly in the touristy areas. But the owners of these cafes were very unlikely to allow wastepickers in; besides which, the typical rate of 15 rupees for a half hour of internet use was somewhat prohibitive for wastepickers. The other major problems were that few if any of the wastepickers knew how to use a computer, and many could not even read or write (India’s literacy rate is about 61%). Therefore the idea of a WIKI requiring the wastepickers to type seemed impossible. Instead, I began to experiment with the idea of using video footage.

After attending Chintan-sponsored wastepicker meetings throughout Delhi for three weeks, I began bringing a digital camcorder to the meetings. I asked my Chintan colleagues to translate my intentions to the wastepickers: that I wanted to film their comments after the meeting, and that I would put the resulting videos on the internet where the public could see them. The wastepickers sat riveted as the translation came through to them, and when the translation was done many looked at me and smiled: they liked the idea. Although they didn’t know how to use a computer or the internet, they certainly knew what the internet was, and they knew it could be used to get their messages out.

I told the wastepickers that they could say anything they wanted in our 1-2 minute “interviews”: that they could talk about their families, their jobs, their problems… anything was fair game. And as it turned out, they had a lot to say. The Youtube DelhiKabari project is ongoing; I plan to continue conducting interviews and uploading them through the month of August, and hopefully to pass on the responsibility to a Chintan staff member after I leave. But the site is up now, so please check it out and see what the wastepickers have to say at: www.youtube.com/delhikabari

Showing how the digital camera works to a young wastepicker at Seemapuri (Photo by Mackenzie Berg)


Delhi's Dirty Little Secret

Posted By: Paul
Above: A typical Delhi scene which I pass everyday on the way to work. Many Delhi sidewalks are impassable because of the amount of garbage covering them, forcing people to walk in the street.

The streets of Delhi are awash with trash. Navigating the city on foot can be difficult because many sidewalks lie buried and invisible under piles of stinking, colorful garbage, up to a meter deep. The stench when the tropical sun hits the piles of unsorted dry and wet garbage is almost unbearable. Yet Delhi’s inhabitants choose to ignore the smell, and the medieval disposal system persists: people dump their garbage on the street or in the river, pretending that it will disappear, and the government pretends to collect it. This system may have worked before plastic and aluminum were introduced to India, but now it has terrible consequences, because modern trash is non-biodegradable. Waste management is one of Delhi’s biggest problems, and one it has in common with much of the developing world.

Then there are those who actually do collect the garbage: the wastepickers. They are part of another problem: the immigration of millions of desperately poor people from the countryside into the already poor and overcrowded city. But they also represent the cheapest and most effective solution for Delhi’s waste problem. Their poverty assures that they are willing to do any task for a livelihood: even sort through other people’s trash. And so that’s what they do, day and night: extract every reusable piece of garbage from the piles that accumulate around the city, and make sure it gets to recyclers. For this valuable work they typically receive $1 to $2 a day; enough to survive if you live in a slum. Wastepickers represent about 1% of Delhi’s population, but they manage over 20% of its daily waste in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Figure from "Wasting Our Local Resources: The Need for Inclusive Waste Management" by Bharati Chaturvedi, 2007

The informal waste management system in Delhi is complex and multi-leveled, employing many thousands of people at different stages. At the bottom level are wastepickers. Most wastepickers are people who came to Delhi from poor rural areas in search of work and a better life, but were unable to find either. Wastepickers make their income by collecting recyclable materials from the trash that litters Delhi’s sidewalks and from the overflowing bins on many street corners. This activity is often viewed as illegitimate (although it is technically legal), and wastepickers are constantly harassed by the police and community organizations. Slightly more esteemed than wastepickers are thiawalas: junk dealers who go door to door buying recyclables from households and offices. They are seen as more legitimate businessmen/women because they actually "buy" the trash they collect, rather than picking it up off the street.

After collecting and sorting recyclable trash (typically using space in a park or on a non-crowded sidewalk for the sorting process), wastepickers and thiawalas sell their recyclables to small neighborhood junk dealers (small kabaris), who then sell it to larger junk dealers (big kabaris). Finally, the useful garbage is sold to recycling plants where it is cut up and turned into new products. Each link in the supply chain adds income for those who participate, and the total chain supplies livelihoods to tens of thousands of people who would otherwise have no work.

Figure from "Wasting Our Local Resources: The Need for Inclusive Waste Management" by Bharati Chaturvedi, 2007

The alternative to the wastepicker/thiawala recycling system is trash pick-up by private companies, but this system represents both a threat to the environment and the livelihoods of Delhi’s wastepickers. In Delhi, as in most parts of the world, private waste disposal companies dump all the garbage they collect, recyclable and non-recyclable, in large landfills. The reason is because private collection companies have no economic incentive for recycling: it is much cheaper to dispose of the trash in a landfill than to sort and recycle it. As a result, Delhi’s landfills are now approaching maximum capacity. The two systems are contrasted in the chart above, with private (formal) waste collection on the left and informal waste collection on the right. As you can see, the only waste which gets recycled under the formal system is that small amount which the wastepickers are able to scavenge from dumpsters and trash bins before it is taken away to the landfills. Thus in India private waste collection results directly in less trash being recycled. Moreover, private waste collection is much more expensive than the informal system, since it involves the government paying a company to take away trash rather than citizens having their trash removed for free by a wastepicker. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, the privatization of Delhi’s waste collection is eliminating a last-ditch opportunity for Delhi’s poorest citizens to make a living by waste picking, without which they have no where to turn for money.

Given the benefits of informal waste collection vs. formal waste collection, why is the Delhi government rapidly expanding formal collection, illegalizing waste picking, and disbanding the informal recycling chain? The answer is simple: large private waste collection companies can afford to lobby the municipal government effectively to get the contracts they want, and can pay the police to kick wastepickers out of their collection areas. Moreover, and perhaps more deeply motivating, is the desire of the Delhi municipal government to modernize, gentrify, and “catch up” with cities in more developed countries: a goal which simply is not realistic given the intense poverty of India. In this increasingly hostile environment, the Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group stands as one of the only organizations ready to defend the rights of wastepickers to make a living from trash. This does not mean fighting against all privatization, but it does mean assuring that wastepickers continue to be able to make a living in Delhi. As Bharati Chaturvedi, Chintan’s founder, says in her groundbreaking 2007 report on Inclusive Waste Management: “In a country still mired in poverty, why shouldn’t policy promote a system that allows thousands of players sharing a public resource, instead of dividing it up amongst only a handful?”

Perhaps private waste collection will become a viable option when development lifts more of India’s people out of extreme poverty, and when efficient large-scale recycling can be subsidized by the government. But until then waste picking remains the best solution for providing jobs and efficient recycling in Delhi.

Although government waste bins marked "recyclable" and "non-recyclable" are everywhere in Delhi, most are nonfunctional like this one or filled to the brim with unsorted garbage. The obstacles to efficient waste collection and recycling in Delhi are huge, and so far the best solution for both is the informal recyling system.


The Seemapuri Toilet March

Posted By: Paul

On June 6th, 2008 the wastepickers of Seemapuri, a suburb of Delhi, won a major victory by convincing their local government officials to install a portable toilet in their community. This victory may seem insignificant, but in the terrible sanitary conditions of the Seemapuri wastepicker colony, where raw sewage flows in narrow gutters in front of houses and children play in piles of wet garbage, a working toilet represents a major step up.

I visited the community that Friday afternoon with Zeeshan Khan, the Chintan representative in charge of maintaining relations with the Seemapuri colony and helping the residents advocate for their rights. Zeeshan is a Muslim, which made him a good Chintan ambassador for this community of almost entirely Bengali Muslims. Immigrating to Delhi from the Indian state of West Bengal, the residents of Seemapuri faced constant discrimination, especially by the Delhi Police, because of the misconception that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “In fact,” complained one wastepicker to me, “we are not from Bangladesh… although their may be some illegal immigrants in Delhi, we are not them.” The Delhi police took advantage of this misidentification to constantly illicit bribes on threat of exportation, I was told. Zeeshan explained that one of the ways Chintan tried to alleviate this problem was by providing official Wastepicker ID cards which wastepickers could show to the Police. Not wanting to have to deal with a legitimate NGO, Police were likely to leave the wastepickers with IDs alone, Zeeshan said. The children of Bengali wastepickers also faced discrimination in school, where teachers were known to not allow them in classes on the assumption that they were illegal immigrants. Zeeshan said he had made calls to local schools in the past to clarify the students’ identities. Moreover, if residents wanted to apply of citizenship ID cards from the government (which few Indian people have), Chintan would also help them do that, he added.

The issue to be addressed today, however, was more concrete: the need for a working toilet in the community. In recent years the Delhi government had begun to recognize its responsibility to provide basic services to the numerous squatter slums throughout the city or face a humanitarian crisis of unsanitary and unbearable conditions. Consequently, it had begun to install roads, electricity and even plumbing in some slums. Seeking to take advantage of this policy, the women of Seemapuri were applying for a toilet to be installed in their neighborhood.

In the angled sunlight of a Friday afternoon, while their husbands and sons were at the local Mosque, about 30 women of the Seemapuri colony began marching to the offices of their local government representative, their colorful saris fluttering in the warm breeze. One of their leaders held in her hand a Chintan-prepared application for a toilet to be installed in their community. Reaching the government office they were directed down a long, dark hallway to a medium-sized room where the local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) named Veer Singh Dhigan greeted them with a smile. Plastic chairs appeared and the room was soon filled with sitting women and children looking attentively to their leaders (who sat in the front row) and to the MLA, who sat on an elevated table in front of them. I stood in one corner of the room filming the event with my digital camera; when the MLA noticed me he asked in English “Are you filming video?” to which I answered yes. This made him nervous but he made no effort to stop me. He may not have liked the idea that everything he said would be on record, but he could do nothing about it. The conversation which followed lasted about thirty minutes, with the MLA speaking and gesturing grandly and responding to occasional interjections from older women in the crowd and side discussions with Zeeshan, all in Hindi. The women were excited; many of them were smiling. The time had finally come to claim their rights as citizens. In the end, the MLA agreed to their request and promised to install a portable toilet (like the ones at construction or picnic sites in the USA) in the community, and to have it emptied once a week. This concession in hand, the women left in a spirit of triumph and accomplishment which made their faces beam as brightly as their saris. They walked leisurely back to the colony in an air of victory. Someone had listened to them.

The living conditions at the Seemapuri wastepicker colony in a suburb of Delhi are extremely unsanitary. There is no plumbing, and stinking raw sewage streams down tiny footpaths between houses, pooling in alleyways where children play.

A leader of the Seemapuri wastepicker women holds an application for the government installation of a toilet in her community while on a way to meet the local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) on Friday, June 6th, 2008.

Seemapuri MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) Veer Singh Dhigan, in white, meets with women from the Seemapuri wastepicker colony to discuss their application to have a toilet installed in their community on Friday, June 6th, 2008. Seated to the right is Zeeshan Khan (with glasses), a Chintan staff member supporting the application.

Seemapuri wastepickers examine ID cards being handed out to them by Chintan representitives while meeting on a Muslim burial ground near their colony. The ID cards feature the name and photo of each wastepicker as well as Chintan contact information.

Wastepicker children show off their cricket paddle near their home in Seemapuri, a suburb of Delhi.

The Wastepicker Colony

Posted By: Paul

They literally live in a huge pile of garbage. In a place called Bhopura, a heavily-polluted industrial suburb of Delhi, about a thousand people live in shacks made of bamboo and scrap materials amid what appears to be a sprawling landfill. In fact, these people have brought the trash here themselves so they can spend all day sorting it into recyclible and non-recyclible materials. They will then sell the recyclible bits to junk dealers, earning an average income of about one dollar a day. They are the Bhopura wastepickers.

Wastepickers, also known as Kabari, represent almost 1% of Delhi's total population and handle about 20% of the city's enormous daily waste, providing an efficient mechanism for recycling in a society where the most common means of disposing of trash is dumping it on the sidewalk. Despite this invaluable service they are largely shunned by society and constantly harassed by the Delhi Police, who demand bribes from almost all wastepickers. In a caste-based society, most wastepickers fall naturally at the bottom, being either untouchables or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. All of them are incredibly poor; otherwise they wouldn't be doing the job they do.

Yet despite their poverty and the very unappealing nature of their work, I was astonished by the dignity of the wastepickers I met on a Sunday afternoon at Bhopura: the way the men looked me in the eye and shook my hand with a smile, while the women, dressed in saris as beautiful as those of any other Indian women, smiled and held their young children in their arms. They were clearly not the kind of people who can be kept down even by the discouraging circumstances in their lives.

Located on the outskirts of Delhi, the Bhopura wastepicker colony is home to perhaps a thousand people who live in shacks amidst piles of garbage they have accumulated. Everyday, the wastepickers sort through those piles in the hope finding recyclable bits which they can sell to make a living.

A man and a boy scavenge for recyclable trash at the Bhopura wastepicker colony where they live and work. Whole families typically work together in the wastepicking business, and most wastepicking children are not able to attend school.

Anand Mishra (farthest from camera), a Chintan employee, speaks with two wastepickers about the planned distribution of free clothing at the Bhopura wastepicker colony on the afternoon of June 6th, 2008.

Chintan employees unload bags of free clothing for distribution to wastepicker families who lost their homes in a fire the week before at the Bhopura wastepicker colony.

Inhabitants of the Bhopura wastepicker colony wait to receive bags of free clothing following the destruction of their homes by a fire the week before. Many wastepickers at Bhopura and in greater Delhi are in fact West Bangli immigrants who are unable to find other means of surviving in the overcrowded and poverty-stricken city.


The Delhi Commute & Paul in the Time of Cholera

Posted By: Paul

The Delhi Commute

Video footage of my auto rickshaw commute through the narrow streets of the Paharganj Bazaar in Delhi

View from the shotgun seat of a Delhi public bus... note the hindu statue on the dashboard

“To Lajpat Nagar?” I enquired of the driver through his open window. “Yes, goes” he replied, beckoning me to climb on. My commute to work then began as I boarded the big, rickety green bus labeled 455, one of dozens of similar buses idling in front of New Delhi Train Station. I was relieved to find myself only the second passenger and the driver offered me the “shotgun” seat next to him, which I gladly accepted. Fifteen minutes later the bus started off on its journey to the Southern part of Delhi, but before picking up speed the driver spent about thirty minutes creeping along the streets calling out the destinations so as to completely fill the bus with passengers; a common practice in many developing countries. It was during this time that a loud obnoxious drunk man decided to sit next to me and introduced himself: “I am condom!” he firmly declared. For the next ten minutes he proceeded to badger me in an incomprehensible mix of English and Hindi, the gist being that I should find a way to bring him to the USA. “In my bag?” I suggested, pointing to my backpack. Evidently he didn’t find this amusing and eventually stopped talking to me.

Drunken guy on the 8:00 AM bus who demanded I take a picture of him

For the last week I’ve been commuting each day from Hotel The Hash; a very cheap guesthouse where I’ve been staying for about $7 a night; to the Chintan office via either bus or auto-rickshaw. The Hotel is located just off the Paharganj Bazaar, a giant, filthy, fascinating market street which begins in front of New Delhi train station. I settled on the room on the night of my arrival because it was the cheapest I could find, but it has turned out to be satisfactory. The only problem is the distance: Paharganj is on the opposite side of the city from Chitan, which is located in the more fashionable Lajpat Nagar district. My only choices for commuting are the bus or an auto rickshaw, with the bus costing about 25 cents and the auto rickshaw costing about $2 each way. While riding the bus is something of a social experience (as described above, although I have also met really cool people on the bus), taking an autoricksaw is nothing short of a terrifying adrenaline rush, as the driver plunges into fierce Delhi traffic at 40 MPH, tearing between invisible lanes and passing larger cars, trucks and buses in tight maneuvers. The auto rickshaw takes less than half as much time as the bus.

Driver's eye view from the inside of an auto rickshaw

Paul in the Time of Cholera

I knew stomach problems were almost inevitable this summer, but I hadn’t expected to get them so soon or with such ferocity. I’m not sure precisely what caused it; it could have been a meal I ate with an Indian friend in a cheap restaurant by the train station (the food was excellent, but the conditions were unsanitary); or it could have been a glass of water which I drank at a real-estate agent’s office, which he assured me was filtered (but perhaps the glass had just been washed in tap water). In any case, it began this past Wednesday evening as I was eating dinner with fellow Chintan interns Melissa and Justin, only to discover that I had absolutely no appetite and felt nauseous. When I returned to my hotel room the bug kicked in full swing, and I was unable to sleep all night due to the intense stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Around midnight I went down to the front desk to ask about seeing a doctor, but was told I would have to wait until the morning. The next nine hours were excruciating: I grew feverish and delusional and started yelling random things, which I expect were probably incomprehensible. The next morning I woke up feeling slightly better but still quite sick; I asked a bicycle rickshaw wallah to take me to the nearest private doctor, which he did. Private doctors in India are wonderful because they can see you immediately without an appointment, are well trained, and extremely cheap (this visit cost $3.50). The doctor looked me over and asked about my symptoms, quickly concluding that I had drunk microbe-infested water and proscribing the appropriate drugs. The four kinds of drugs he perscibed cost a total of $4.00, demonstrating how ridiculously over-priced medicine is in the USA.

I’ve gained two bits of wisdom from experience: one is to never drink any water but bottled water (which I was already trying to do), and the other is a greater appreciation for the suffering of the hundreds of millions of poor people who do not have access to clean water. People in many parts of India, Africa and other areas suffer diarrhea, parasites and often deadly stomach infections as a result of drinking feces-infested water. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of diseases in India are caused by water-borne diseases, which are directly related to improper sewage disposal.

Most people in India don’t have the money to either buy bottled water or see a doctor; in this sense I felt blessed even in my terrible condition.


Getting Ready for India

Posted By: Paul

It's Saturday, May 18th. I'm now at home in Maryland, but in exactly one week I will board a plane for Delhi, India, where I will live and work as an Advocacy Project Fellow for the next three months.

It will not be my first time in India. I travelled through Northern India, Rajasthan and Goa two years ago in the summer of 2006, after my first year of teaching English in China. I was in Delhi just before the beginning of the Monsoon in June, around the same time as I will be arriving this year. I remember the heat was virtually unbearable; on several nights I awoke in a puddle of my own sweat because the electricity had failed and the ceiling fan stopped. But I also remember the amazing food, smiles, sights, sounds and sense of being in a place that is completely and utterly different from any other I'd been to then or since. India is not just another country; it's another world, and I look forward to returning to it.

And I'm not going there as a tourist this time: I'm going to learn and to try to help. Living abroad in China and visiting many developing countries made me want to study International Development, and I am currently pursuing an MA in that subject at The American University in Washington, DC (http://www.american.edu/sis/idp/). While studying at AU this past fall I met Amy Burrows, Fellowship Manager for the Advocacy Project, and was later interviewed (twice) and accepted as a 2008 Fellow. The Advocacy Project appealed to me from the beginning because of its emphasis on grassroots advocacy, which meshes with what I've been learning in my courses at AU about the need for more bottom-up initiatives in the developing world. Momentum within the development field is rapidly shifting from government-based development organizations towards private NGOs, many of them indigenous to the countries they work in. Through the Advocacy Project I hope to learn more about how such development NGOs work, specifically in India, which has a very large number of sophisticated NGOs.

The organization I will be working with in Delhi is called the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group (http://www.chintan-india.org/). Their mission is to help and advocate for the rights of informal waste recyclers: poor people who pick up garbage and sell it to be recycled. I saw waste recyclers at work everyday while I lived in China, and also in virtually every developing country I have visited. I feel a sense of great respect for them, because they perform a difficult and dirty job while providing an important service to society by both removing litter and making sure it is recycled. Yet in Delhi waste recyclers are increasingly shunned and their activities have been illegalized because they appear "unsightly" or "backward" in a society which is becoming increasingly conscious of how it appears to outsiders. My job will be to create a webpage called "A Site of Their Own" which will allow waste recyclers to post pictures and information about their lives on the internet. Hopefully the site will help people to recognize that waste recyclers are just people trying to make a living and that they are helping the city at the same time.

That's basically what I'll be doing in Delhi and why I'm doing it. Tomorrow is the first day of AP Fellows Training in Washington DC. The training will provide me with additional internet tools and ideas, and I want to be ready to soak it all in, so I'd better get some rest. I'll post again when I arrive in Delhi. Have a great week and thanks for blogging in!

- Paul

Born and raised in the great state of Maryland, Paul graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in art history and a BS in international business.

His fascination with other cultures led him to teach English abroad for several years, first in Japan and then in China, while traveling throughout Asia. During this period of his “tertiary education” Paul came to appreciate both the vast beauty of the world, as well as the depths of human poverty and environmental degradation.

Paul is currently studying for a Masters in International Development at The American University in Washington, DC. This summer Paul will be working with the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group in Delhi, India: an organization which advocates for the rights of informal waste recyclers.

New laws in Delhi seek to illegalize waste-picking activities, which are seen as “backward” and “unseemly” but which are in fact vital to solid waste management. This summer, Paul hopes to help Delhi’s waste recyclers advocate for their legal rights by creating “A Site of Their Own”: a website on which recyclers can tell their own stories.

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The Advocacy Project develops partnerships with advocates on the frontline and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In so doing, we take our cue from partners and tailor any support to their needs.

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