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 Wastepicker Colony

03 Jun

They literally live in a huge pile of garbage. In a place called Bhopura, a heavily-polluted industrial suburb of Delhi, about a thousand people live in shacks made of bamboo and scrap materials amid what appears to be a sprawling landfill. In fact, these people have brought the trash here themselves so they can spend all day sorting it into recyclible and non-recyclible materials. They will then sell the recyclible bits to junk dealers, earning an average income of about one dollar a day. They are the Bhopura wastepickers.

Wastepickers, also known as Kabari, represent almost 1% of Delhi’s total population and handle about 20% of the city’s enormous daily waste, providing an efficient mechanism for recycling in a society where the most common means of disposing of trash is dumping it on the sidewalk. Despite this invaluable service they are largely shunned by society and constantly harassed by the Delhi Police, who demand bribes from almost all wastepickers. In a caste-based society, most wastepickers fall naturally at the bottom, being either untouchables or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. All of them are incredibly poor; otherwise they wouldn’t be doing the job they do.

Yet despite their poverty and the very unappealing nature of their work, I was astonished by the dignity of the wastepickers I met on a Sunday afternoon at Bhopura: the way the men looked me in the eye and shook my hand with a smile, while the women, dressed in saris as beautiful as those of any other Indian women, smiled and held their young children in their arms. They were clearly not the kind of people who can be kept down even by the discouraging circumstances in their lives.

Located on the outskirts of Delhi, the Bhopura wastepicker colony is home to perhaps a thousand people who live in shacks amidst piles of garbage they have accumulated. Everyday, the wastepickers sort through those piles in the hope finding recyclable bits which they can sell to make a living.

A man and a boy scavenge for recyclable trash at the Bhopura wastepicker colony where they live and work. Whole families typically work together in the wastepicking business, and most wastepicking children are not able to attend school.

Anand Mishra (farthest from camera), a Chintan employee, speaks with two wastepickers about the planned distribution of free clothing at the Bhopura wastepicker colony on the afternoon of June 6th, 2008.

Chintan employees unload bags of free clothing for distribution to wastepicker families who lost their homes in a fire the week before at the Bhopura wastepicker colony.

Inhabitants of the Bhopura wastepicker colony wait to receive bags of free clothing following the destruction of their homes by a fire the week before. Many wastepickers at Bhopura and in greater Delhi are in fact West Bangli immigrants who are unable to find other means of surviving in the overcrowded and poverty-stricken city.

Posted By Paul Colombini

Posted Jun 3rd, 2008


  • Krystal

    June 4, 2008


    Hi Paul! Hope you’re feeling better! I’m interested to know what the wastepickers do with the garbage once they’ve gone through it. Do they leave it there, in their community, or do they remove it? Keep up with the great pictures! Krystal

  • Corbeyluv

    June 5, 2008



    This is really nice work. We need to get the others out there to do this as well. As soon as summer school finishes at the end of the month I’m going to work on getting the IDPSA website updated and I will try to assemble links for all the blogs our community is keeping (if there are others).

    Great job,


  • Amy Burrows

    June 5, 2008


    Great blog, Paul! You write well… and it’s a great introduction to your work with the Waste pickers. Your pics are beautiful as well!

    🙂 amy

  • visitor

    June 5, 2008


    Thank you for the pictures, they were very powerful and helped to make the situation tangible.

  • hala

    June 5, 2008


    Just read your 3 entries-
    This is fascinating stuff!!!
    Good luck on the rest of the journey and keep writing!


  • Danita Topcagic

    June 10, 2008


    Hi Paul,
    I’m a Peace Fellow as well, but we didn’t get to meet in DC.
    Just wanted to say how powerful these pictures are. Even though I have seen these images before, they are overwhelming.
    Great work you are doing.


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