Recently I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and rode through the arcade video game that is Delhi’s highway system, across the Yamuna River to the outskirts of the city. Each week Chintan hosts community meetings with wastepickers in various locales, and this week’s meeting took place in the gritty borough of Bhopura. Most of Delhi’s wastepickers live on the periphery, both figuratively and literally – structural violence has pushed them to the margins of society and the hijacking of public space by urban elites has brushed them to the physical margins of the city.
Frankly, I expected squalor. Perhaps like most Americans I’ve been spoon-fed “poverty porn” for too long, because despite earnest attempts to the contrary, during the ride I was anticipating something pretty crude: an encounter with abjection. I was surprised, then, to arrive at small enclave of “chuggis,” or huts, in the absence of any stench. This was no landfill, but an area to live and work provided to the wastepickers by the local “godam mallik,” a patron of sorts.
Neither was there a prevailing sense of pathos. I was met by a resilient and accommodating group of families who were overly concerned with whether or not my backpack might get dusty, if I needed another cup of tea, if I was comfortable enough on the lawn chair while they sat on a large black tarp.
This week the organizer, Santu, read an article documenting the resolution of a decades-old land dispute between the local government and a group of farmers. In a nutshell, the farmers’ land had been seized for development in an eminent domain sort of scenario, and they’d been paid a nominal fee for it. They fought for years to get proper compensation, taking it up the chain of courts. In the end they lost. The warning to the wastepickers was clear: the spatial freedom they enjoy here exists in legal limbo, and while their homes are not in immediate threat, they may be down the road. The crowd was galvanized and several lingered after the meeting to plot strategy.
I’m guilty of having deployed the trite phrase “a humbling experience” in the past. When we say we’ve been humbled, we often mean we’ve been forced to reconsider the affluence and banality of our daily lives. The Bhopura meeting, on the other hand, was a kind of humility in converse – expecting the sensationalism of extreme poverty, I was confronted instead with the richness of one poor community, its rituals and formalities, its jokesters, its concerns, its kites.
Posted By Ted Mathys
Posted Jun 11th, 2009