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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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