Paul Colombini

Paul Colombini (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Paul graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in art history and a BS in international business. He also taught English abroad for several years, first in Japan and then in China. At the time of his fellowship, Paul was studying for a Masters in international development at The American University in Washington, DC. After his fellowship, Paul wrote: "This experience helped me understand India and Indian society and also gave me a greater appreciation of the enormous difficulties of development and grassroots efforts in particular."

A Site of Their Own

03 Jul

NOTE: The videos in this entry are excerpts from the Youtube site I have created for Delhi’s wastepickers:

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 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:

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

Posted By Paul Colombini

Posted Jul 3rd, 2008


  • Mackenzie

    July 3, 2008


    this is fantastic.. im thrilled the camera is proving to be so useful! rock on.

  • Shah Tasadduque Ali Khan

    July 13, 2008


    I have read your entire site. You submitted your idea nicely. The picture of your site is a real picture of our sub-continent. If you visit my country Bangladesh then you will get more idea and material for your study and research.

    Shah Tasadduque ali Khan

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