First Few Days in New Delhi

Laura and I both arrived safely in Delhi and met up on Sunday to go to our home stay.  Our first week with Chintan has been an orientation to the NGO and its projects. 

The first day we met with one of the women in charge of the Human Resources department.  She briefed us on Chintan’s projects which include Door to Door Waste Collection, Voice for Waste, No Child in Trash, Low Carbon Future, and Knowledge as Power.   Chintan was founded in December of 1999 with a focus on waste management and legitimizing the job of waste pickers to incorporate them into the formal work sector (although they are currently still considered part of the informal work sector).  On our first day, we visited Gaziabat, a small slum area near one of the landfills in Delhi (outside of New Delhi). We took a autorickshaw (motor cycle with 3 wheels and a small covered back seat (like in Peru) to Gaziabad because the bus never came.  It was embarrassing to show up in clean clothes and nice backpacks. We first went to the school that Chintan has set up for the children in the slum aged 4-14.  In each tiny classroom there are about 30 children with no chairs or individual notebooks (or any personal space) but the walls are filled with posters and the children seemed quite content.  Coming to class must be a nice break from slum life for them.  They learn in Hindi and English and many of the children start going to school in the Chintan program and then slowly integrate into the public school system (or even attend both).  Some of the children accompany their parents to the landfills at extremely young ages to help work.  The majority of people in the Gaziabad community are from Bengal and speak Bengali.  However, some can also speak Hindi.  The teachers in the classes meet with 2 of the children’s parents each evening to provide feedback on their child’s progress or follow up on poor attendance.  Chintan pays the teachers with money collected by the wastepickers from selling recyclables that they have picked through the trash for.  The living conditions of theses slums is absolutely horrendous.  People rarely have enough water to bathe, or even drink, after working in the landfills.  The government does not recognize the slum village or the waste pickers because they have “illegally” immigrated from Bengal and thus are not citizens of Delhi.  The government refuses to grant citizenship to the waste-pickers and also refuses to recognize the slum village.  This means that the people in the slums cannot hold ration cards because in order to have a ration card you must have an address, which the government refuses to grant to the area.  Additionally, the power has recently been cut because the government does not provide power to areas they do not consider “legal,” forcing the people to “steal” electricity from surrounding areas by installing electricity lines.  

The second day we went on a Low Carbon Future “field trip” at the Select City Mall, a very Western styled mall.  Chintan manages the waste for the entire mall. We went to the basement to see where the trash is collected and where the waste-pickers work (or rather to see the process “in action”).  There are two sets of four waste-pickers that work morning and evening shifts separating recyclables from the trash and composting food and wet waste in a composting machine and then setting the compost on racks to be collected.  Someone from Chintan (I believe) comes to collect the recyclables to sell and the compost is used for the mall’s landscaping.  The waste-pickers in the compost area wore gloves masks but did not actually cover their mouths.  The other waste-pickers did not wear gloves.  The separation was set up with three separate open “rooms” and a covered hallway along the back with openings to each “room.” At the end of the hallway was a mat with some old pillows and a couple of rags, which is apparently where the waste-pickers sleep.  Anyone from the US would be appalled at this site, although one must wonder if it is better to sleep in the basement of a mall on a mat rather than outside and exposed to weathering.  After our visit to the mall, where we had pizza for lunch which has never tasted better (I’m already craving pizza after just 2 days of Indian food), we went back to Gaziabat to see a presentation by Voice for Waste to some of the community members.  One of the Chintan employees did a social impact assessment of government’s new Waste to Energy plant.  The study was conducted in 3 slum communities and concluded, to no surprise, that this new Waste to Energy plant would greatly affect the waste-pickers as the waste would no longer go to the landfill (where the waste-pickers work) but would instead be taken to the new power plant and burned to create energy.  For the waste-pickers, this would mean less trash to pick through, resulting in lower earnings.  This would also result in increased child labor as families would be forced to put their children to work.  Chintan spoke with government officials about how this will put thousands of people out of work and the government simply replied saying that these people can just find other work.  Now Chintan is working with the government to ensure that waste-pickers will be hired to work in the energy plant. The Voice for Waste committee is also working with the government to officially recognize the slums and grant each home an address so that ration cards can be given to each family.  Chintan was able to make 123 ration cards and distribute them to 123 families in the community.  However, because there are no house numbers on the ration cards, markets will not accept the cards.  Additionally, each card is valid for 1 month so after 1 month the card is useless.  The frustration of the slum community is extremely palpable and it is clear that they would rather speak with the government themselves rather than going through NGOs (as voiced by one of the waste-pickers at the meeting). However, the government will not listen to the waste-pickers without the NGOs.  Chintan is eager to involve the waste-pickers in their next presentation to the government.

On the third day we woke up early and met Deepak near the Khan Market for a field visit of the Door to Door project.  In this community, one waste-picker, employed by Chintan, collects the waste from 120 households each day.  The waste-picker is paid 1,000 Rs. per month (equivalent to about $25) by Chintan. We followed around this waste-picker for about half an hour (he collects the waste in a small dumpster on the back of his bike).  It seemed ridiculous to just follow him around.  I wanted to help him but Deepak couldn’t understand what I was asking when I asked him how we could assist the waste-picker in his work.  It felt demeaning to simply stand and watch.  I guess this is just one of the differences here that may never settle the right way in me.

Well, that’s what Laura and I have been up to for our first few days at work.  It hasn’t gotten unbearably hot yet, although it is very very warm here.  We’re both also very happy with our homestay!

One thought on “First Few Days in New Delhi

  1. Well done Abby. It seems like you have had a true range of experiences at Chintan during your first week in Delhi.I think others CASI interns can also relate to what it is like to show up feeling ‘better off’ than people who have very little and how uncomfortable it feels to watch someone do work when you are not allowed to help. I think the challenge is to figure out how you can connect with the communities you are working with through individual personal interactions. Although it may appear the waste pickers lead very different lives than yours, I know you will be able to learn how much in common you actually share. I think the migrant communities you are talking about are from Bangladesh. It would be interesting if you could ask your coworkers about the history in working with this community and learn a bit more about what other organizations are working with them. You are absolutely right that there are often limited resources and social services available for migrant workers and language also poses additional hardships.You had also mentioned that some people wear gloves whereas others do not. Were you able to ask why? What training programs does Chintan run to help improve the sanitation practices of the waste pickers?The points you raised with the Voice for Waste is really important. While it is essential to improve the waste infrastructure, what happens to lost jobs? How confident do you think that the waste pickers will be guaranteed jobs in the new treatment plant?Great post. Looking forward to reading more and seeing some photographs!

  2. Interestingly, the migrant community is in fact from Bengal. An interesting difference between how things work in India and the US is that even though these migrants are Indian citizens (as they are from Bengal) they are not recognized by the government in Delhi which has disabled them from obtaining proper rights (including ration cards, proper addresses for their homes, etc). Part of Laura’s project is actually working with other NGOs that are also involved in the education of these slum children.I had asked why some where gloves and others do not. All of the Chintan workers were initially given gloves and masks but most of them choose not to use them. I asked if this was because the gloves or masks became old and they disposed of them but I was told that this was not the case. Many waste-pickers just choose not to wear them (which is understandable as they have been working without gloves or masks their entire lives).In regards to the Voice for Waste…they’re doing some very interesting things right now and I was very impressed by the man in charge of the program. He seems very invested in helping the waste-pickers but more importantly, he is very careful to include the waste-pickers in all of the work he does and in allowing them to voice their opinions, concerns, and experiences. I think that the waste-pickers will have a difficult time taking jobs at the waste to energy plant. But I think as others have recognized, that many changes are initally met with resistance but the opportunity to work at the plant (if it arises) will be much better than having even less work than they do now.More to come! I haven’t been carrying my camera but I’ll start now!

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About Abby Waldorf

I work in communications and engagement for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My work focuses primarily on fostering discussion and collaboration on research for development (focusing on the management of water, land and ecosystems for sustained agricultural intensification and poverty alleviation). See our blog here: I received a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn I participated in the Penn International Development Summer Internship Program in Ghana in 2010 and the Center for the Advanced Study of India internship program in New Delhi in 2011. I love traveling and all water sports.