Ted Mathys

Ted Mathys (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Ted earned a Bachelor’s degree in international relations from Carleton College. His research focused on the social dynamics of achieving environmental sustainability in the context of globalization. At the time of his fellowship, Ted was pursuing a degree in international environmental policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. After his fellowship, Ted wrote: “I learned to undertake rigorous research in difficult conditions. More than this, I was challenged to think about poverty and (the) environment in much more complex ways.”

Recyclable by Bicycle

04 Jun

My first morning in Delhi, demolished by jet lag and seeking refuge from the heat, I wandered out of my austere apartment, rounded the corner, and promptly saw a motorized rickshaw get in a wreck. Instantly a dozen people swooped in to lift it back up onto its wheels, check to make sure that the two women who had tumbled out were okay, and commence arguing about who would shoulder the blame.

The streets of Delhi are a veritable electron cloud of activity – in the mix are bicycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, all manner of vendors, hawkers, and occasionally, cattle:

If I were a massive ox, where would I sleep?

As I learned yesterday, somewhere in this flux there are also “cycle kabaris,” or waste recyclers on wheels. Before beginning my research on municipal waste and greenhouse gas emissions in Delhi, I’ll be spending the next few weeks with the various communities Chintan supports in order to better understand the topography of waste collection and informal recyclers.

The cycle kabari gang meets with Chintan weekly to air concerns and strategize. Yesterday we collected on the manicured lawns of Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi amid chirping birds and furtive young couples picnicking on the grass.

Cycle kabaris are essentially one-man businesses, using a modified bicycle to ride around designated neighborhoods and purchase recyclables, such as old magazines and newspapers, directly from homeowners. They yell “kabari waala! kabari walla!” to announce their arrival, and residents descend with paper, plastic, and even metals in hand. Cycle kabaris then sell up the chain to larger, bulk recyclers at a higher rate to make a living. Unlike wastepickers, they do very little segregation of raw waste.

Nayaran is a veteran cycle kabari.

The kabaris spoke of barriers to entry to their traditionally recognized zones of operation. Although the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) has guaranteed them the right to collect and purchase recyclables from individual homeowners in designated neighborhoods, some residential block guards persist in either barring them outright or charging them an exorbitant “entry fee” to carry out their work. Chintan documents and aggregates complaints like these in order to help informal recyclers solve problems and build capacity.

Prakash Shukla (right) of Chintan facilitates the weekly cycle kabari meeting.

The number of participants at the Lodhi meetings has been down in recent months, partly because some cycle kabari workers have lost their homes – sometimes on public land – to city development in the area. They have thus been forced to move to other corners of the city.

Yet the camaraderie among these men is immediately palpable. Though from different religions and backgrounds, they assured me they don’t compete with each other. They know whose turf is whose and respect the code, as it were. Prakash Shukla, a Chintan organizer who meets with the cycle kabaris each week summarized their philosophy thus: “To break one stick is simple, but to break a whole bundle of sticks is nearly impossible.”

Cycle Kabari

Posted By Ted Mathys

Posted Jun 4th, 2009


  • judy mathys

    June 5, 2009



    You’re telling us alot already. Sounds productive on the part of Chintan and interns like you. Bravo!

    My question is about how an individual establishes territory in the first place. How the very first pickers staked their claim, and then now how someone can get into this.


  • Karen Mathys

    June 11, 2009


    I was intrigued when you shared how you would be spending your summer and support you whole-heartedly in this amazing project.
    You have learned some very interesting things so far and my hope is that you will have access to the resources you need to compile meanful information to benefit both the cycling kabari workers and the other waste pickers.
    Looking forward to following your journey.
    I applaud your involvement in helping to move forward recycling efforts both for the people who are doing it and the benefit to our greater world.
    A. Karen

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