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.”

Seven Social Sins

18 Jun

The new one rupee coin is arguably the hippest coin ever minted. The front is smooth and spare, depicting the number one; the word RUPEE in English and Hindi; and a hand entering the frame from the right, giving the thumbs-up sign. The two rupee coin is equally stylish, but here the hand flashes us the peace sign.

On Sunday I was sipping scalding chai in an alleyway café, wondering what vanguard graphic designer at the Reserve Bank of India had come up with the slick new concept, when it occurred to me that the hand gestures were functional. A thumb in the air doesn’t indicate hitchhiking or a general state of mirth, but the number “one.” Likewise, the peace sign means “two.” These coins were likely designed for the 40% of India’s population that is illiterate. I then proceeded to comb through the bills in my pocket, finding the bespectacled and slightly smiling Gandhi on each and every denomination.  So there it is, I thought, the paradox of populist cash.

Mahatma on the Money

I had planned to travel to Ghazipur Landfill at sundown to meet the wastepicker community that lives next to the dump. Instead of sitting at the café staring at Gandhi on my rupees for the intervening hours, I decided to hop in a rickshaw and spend the afternoon at Raj Ghat, the memorial to Gandhi at the site where he was cremated after his assassination in 1948.

Memorial to Gandhi

The memorial consists of a black granite platform open to the sun, strewn with vibrant marigolds. An eternal flame burns atop the platform, and a grassy park rolls away in all directions. It is appropriately understated for a man who lived his life committed to simple and uncompromising principles. My guidebook informed me, in that overly pat guidebook sort of way, “India’s heart lies here.”

Gandhi himself found the country’s strength and identity not in titanic personalities, but at the margins of society. India’s heart for him resided in the villages, in the overworked and underpaid indentured laborers, the mill workers, the farmers, the poor. We in the West remember him as a radical pacifist, but he was equally a radical democrat. The wastepickers were much on my mind at Raj Ghat; I believe Chintan moves in this very spirit, advocating for a dignified existence and reasonable working conditions for Delhi’s urban poor.

The day then twisted itself into a metaphorical knot as I came upon Gandhi’s “Seven Social Sins” inscribed on an outer wall of the memorial:

Seven Social Sins

As I wandered around the landfill and wastepicker village in Ghazipur later that evening, speaking with residents and visiting homes, these social sins were clanging about in my head.

Wastepickers at the Ghazipur landfill. Cows and cattle egrets are common in the dumps.

India is now experiencing both rapid urbanization and increasing volumes of waste, and a high GDP growth rate is sacrosanct in policy circles. In this context, overcoming “Politics Without Principles” and “Commerce Without Morality” will require far more than outsourcing waste management to private corporations or producing populist coins and bills.

This young fellow has just finished helping his mother roast corn over glowing embers.

Many of the rights and freedoms that wastepickers seek – freedom from harassment, adequate space for their work, clear legal recognition, access to waste, access to education, access to health care – have been taken up at one time or another by local governmental bodies. Yet piecemeal legislation and technological remedies are no solution for what remain structural problems.

In the end, pervasive “social sins” demand a powerful social response – and this is exactly what Chintan and the wastepickers are mounting.

Posted By Ted Mathys

Posted Jun 18th, 2009


  • judy mathys

    June 20, 2009



    Kudos for the engaging text and video overview with highlights of children making it even more real. Seems like they are caught between that rock and hard place. They will lose if economic progress without mechanized waste management inundates them with rubbish, and they will lose ifchange steam rolls over their communities with no compensation to them. I support your efforts with Chintan to continue taking steps to trump both of those worst case scenarios.

    Talking with current American residents on leave here from a decade and more of mission work in the outskirts of Delhi, I sense a potential resistance to change among residents..it could be a painstakingly slow process, they said. What will become of the wild hogs that eat the local piles of garbage in many outlying neighborhoods? Maybe they are too far out to be affected by this.

    Will all or part of these videos be used in the proceedings to negotiate benefits, or will you make more videos specifically geared to impressing Chintan’s arguments on the powers concerned?

    Jim and I like the opinions you offer in an adjective here and there.

    Carry on.


  • Ted Mathys

    June 21, 2009


    Thanks much for this comment! You are right that change is slow in coming, but there have been some strides in recent years. The contributions of wastepickers are now acknowledged in a handful of municipal and national legislation. The challenge is to move this recognition into full fledged engagement.

    In terms of the waste volume, the cold hard facts show that wastepickers actually segregate more (90%) of the waste they interact with than is required of private actors (20%); they recycle basically everything that is recyclable, which is great for the environment and also for the city; and they do this largely without official compensation. I think the problem is that the solutions to a growing waste problem are too often couched only in terms of technology. The wastepickers are green, and the real issue of volume is who can most effectively manage it. If we hold product manufacturers to higher standards of clean design (no toxics in their products), and provide wastepickers with proper space and support for their work, they are the best technology that exists for handling the growing waste problem.



  • Judy Mathys

    July 6, 2009


    This is the “other”” Judy Mathys in Florida and this is all too weird. Is your mother’s name Judy Mathys? I’m on a google sight that sends me emails if my name or bookstore name pops up anywhere. There is a bookstore in India with my same name (Family Book Shop) so I get their mail a lot…and now anything with Judy Mathys in it.

    Too weird. But love that Ghandi quote. I have it on a poster at the store.

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