Paul Colombini

Paul Colombini (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Paul graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a BA in art history and a BS in international business. He also taught English abroad for several years, first in Japan and then in China. At the time of his fellowship, Paul was studying for a Masters in international development at The American University in Washington, DC. After his fellowship, Paul wrote: "This experience helped me understand India and Indian society and also gave me a greater appreciation of the enormous difficulties of development and grassroots efforts in particular."

The Seemapuri Toilet March

10 Jun

On June 6th, 2008 the wastepickers of Seemapuri, a suburb of Delhi, won a major victory by convincing their local government officials to install a portable toilet in their community. This victory may seem insignificant, but in the terrible sanitary conditions of the Seemapuri wastepicker colony, where raw sewage flows in narrow gutters in front of houses and children play in piles of wet garbage, a working toilet represents a major step up.

I visited the community that Friday afternoon with Zeeshan Khan, the Chintan representative in charge of maintaining relations with the Seemapuri colony and helping the residents advocate for their rights. Zeeshan is a Muslim, which made him a good Chintan ambassador for this community of almost entirely Bengali Muslims. Immigrating to Delhi from the Indian state of West Bengal, the residents of Seemapuri faced constant discrimination, especially by the Delhi Police, because of the misconception that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “In fact,” complained one wastepicker to me, “we are not from Bangladesh… although their may be some illegal immigrants in Delhi, we are not them.” The Delhi police took advantage of this misidentification to constantly illicit bribes on threat of exportation, I was told. Zeeshan explained that one of the ways Chintan tried to alleviate this problem was by providing official Wastepicker ID cards which wastepickers could show to the Police. Not wanting to have to deal with a legitimate NGO, Police were likely to leave the wastepickers with IDs alone, Zeeshan said. The children of Bengali wastepickers also faced discrimination in school, where teachers were known to not allow them in classes on the assumption that they were illegal immigrants. Zeeshan said he had made calls to local schools in the past to clarify the students’ identities. Moreover, if residents wanted to apply of citizenship ID cards from the government (which few Indian people have), Chintan would also help them do that, he added.

The issue to be addressed today, however, was more concrete: the need for a working toilet in the community. In recent years the Delhi government had begun to recognize its responsibility to provide basic services to the numerous squatter slums throughout the city or face a humanitarian crisis of unsanitary and unbearable conditions. Consequently, it had begun to install roads, electricity and even plumbing in some slums. Seeking to take advantage of this policy, the women of Seemapuri were applying for a toilet to be installed in their neighborhood.

In the angled sunlight of a Friday afternoon, while their husbands and sons were at the local Mosque, about 30 women of the Seemapuri colony began marching to the offices of their local government representative, their colorful saris fluttering in the warm breeze. One of their leaders held in her hand a Chintan-prepared application for a toilet to be installed in their community. Reaching the government office they were directed down a long, dark hallway to a medium-sized room where the local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) named Veer Singh Dhigan greeted them with a smile. Plastic chairs appeared and the room was soon filled with sitting women and children looking attentively to their leaders (who sat in the front row) and to the MLA, who sat on an elevated table in front of them. I stood in one corner of the room filming the event with my digital camera; when the MLA noticed me he asked in English “Are you filming video?” to which I answered yes. This made him nervous but he made no effort to stop me. He may not have liked the idea that everything he said would be on record, but he could do nothing about it. The conversation which followed lasted about thirty minutes, with the MLA speaking and gesturing grandly and responding to occasional interjections from older women in the crowd and side discussions with Zeeshan, all in Hindi. The women were excited; many of them were smiling. The time had finally come to claim their rights as citizens. In the end, the MLA agreed to their request and promised to install a portable toilet (like the ones at construction or picnic sites in the USA) in the community, and to have it emptied once a week. This concession in hand, the women left in a spirit of triumph and accomplishment which made their faces beam as brightly as their saris. They walked leisurely back to the colony in an air of victory. Someone had listened to them.

The living conditions at the Seemapuri wastepicker colony in a suburb of Delhi are extremely unsanitary. There is no plumbing, and stinking raw sewage streams down tiny footpaths between houses, pooling in alleyways where children play.

A leader of the Seemapuri wastepicker women holds an application for the government installation of a toilet in her community while on a way to meet the local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) on Friday, June 6th, 2008.

Seemapuri MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) Veer Singh Dhigan, in white, meets with women from the Seemapuri wastepicker colony to discuss their application to have a toilet installed in their community on Friday, June 6th, 2008. Seated to the right is Zeeshan Khan (with glasses), a Chintan staff member supporting the application.

Seemapuri wastepickers examine ID cards being handed out to them by Chintan representitives while meeting on a Muslim burial ground near their colony. The ID cards feature the name and photo of each wastepicker as well as Chintan contact information.

Wastepicker children show off their cricket paddle near their home in Seemapuri, a suburb of Delhi.

Posted By Paul Colombini

Posted Jun 10th, 2008


  • FB

    June 10, 2008


    Fascinating blog! Thank you for your work!

  • Yiming

    June 10, 2008


    wow, even for a toilet, they need to fight for it…the NGOs really play an important role China there is little chance that they would let you film the scene

  • Margot

    June 11, 2008


    I really like all of the pictures/videos you post directly onto your blog, they provide a good mental picture to go along with your writing. Keep it up!

  • John Charles

    June 16, 2008



    The photos and videos are great–really help to show what’s happening where you are. I wish you intestinal fortitude!–John

  • Patricio Chile , Media Assistant

    June 23, 2008


    Hi Paul, great photos and post! It’s great that you could witness and cover such an important moment for these people. Good luck to you and I look forward to learning more about your experiences.

  • Faeem Ahmad

    April 26, 2009


    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I have gone through you this project
    on Advocay…… It is realy good and nice project that you are running ….. It is realy able to get our appriciation ……


    My self is alos working with an org. op
    on diffrentr programme … we are working on Indian youth we are working in UP
    Rajesthan, delhi ect. by diffrent programme such as Yalgaar, Gyan Sparsh ect . Now we are looking seema puri area as there
    is also need work on youth .. here we need
    need your support to entail the result of our orgnization which woould be support by Govt also ……… So now it’s humble request to give your support your hand wi
    with our org. named by Social Transformation ……….

    You please give me your 10 minuts for a meeting on this chapter ….
    kindly give me a positive reply as soon as possible

    yours would be subordinate

    Faheem Ahmad

  • SEO Experts India

    October 28, 2011


    they need to fight for it…the NGOs really play an important role China there is little chance that they would let you film the scene

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