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:
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.
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.
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.”
Posted By Ted Mathys
Posted Jun 4th, 2009