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.
Posted By Paul Colombini
Posted Jun 10th, 2008