Rising From the Heap: Waste Collectors Assert their Humanity
Milind Ranade is cleaning up the working conditions of unskilled laborers in Indian cities. Through the revolutionary labor union he founded, Kachra Vahtuk Sanghash Samiti (KVSS), or the 'Waste Collectors and Transporters Union,' Ranade is challenging corruption, and championing the untouchable waste collectors who have been neglected by India's mainstream labor organizations.
These workers’ conditions changed Milind Ranade's life. One day while riding a local bus, he noticed a man who was eating while sitting on top of a passing garbage truck. Shock and fascination led Ranade and two friends to follow the truck to the Shivajinagar dumping ground.
"I remember the date," he says, "December 6th, 1996. My bus was passing a truck, and we all had to cover our noses, there was such a stench coming from the truck. It was carrying waste and sewage. I was riding on the top of a double decker, and through the window I saw three people on that truck, in the midst of that unbearable stink – in which it was impossible to breathe, let alone sit. They were eating their meal. I couldn't eat that day. I was so disturbed.”
Ranade, who worked at a textile mill at the time, was determined to find out more about the workers. The next day, he and a friend followed a garbage truck to a local village. There they saw hundreds of trucks filled with laborers, and slowly discovered the daily horrors that the workers faced.
Waste collectors in India wrangle much more than trash. Shunned by society and mistreated by authorities, the men who take to the trash heaps every day to keep the city sanitary are forced to endure incredibly low wages, social isolation, and unsanitary work conditions leading to illness, injuries, and serious infections. They work a minimum of 10-12 hours every day, barefoot among glass, medical waste and animal carcasses without gloves, masks, or access to proper cleaning facilities.
It took about nine months for Ranade to push past the language barriers, erode the workers’ hostility, and earn their trust. Over time, he talked to the workers about their conditions and basic rights. He visited Bombay's dumping grounds by day, and by night conducted informal meetings in wards that sent waste to Shivajinagar.
Out of these meetings, Ranade and the workers identified the lack of clean drinking water as a pressing issue that was simple and tangible enough to remedy through their first collective act. In 1996, more than 100 waste collectors went on a hunger strike, demanding that the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) make drinking water available in the dumps. The BMC conceded, but did not respond to the protestors' call for bathing facilities.
Encouraged by the strike’s success and charged by their collective demonstration of power, they established KVSS to build solidarity, organize movements to improve work conditions, join forces with other labor rights groups, and push the legal system to enforce waste collectors’ constitutional rights.
KVSS has given a voice to the voiceless. Waste collectors no longer assume their status cannot be changed, and are determined to continue fighting for improvements and new ways to help themselves fully participate in society.
Membership is steadily rising, and the union now features educational exchange programs between members and other contract laborers in nearby cities. KVSS operates in all of Mumbai's 32 municipal wards with a well-oiled structure that maintains meetings, conflict resolution, and negotiations.
The union further bridges workers into India’s mainstream through training sessions on labor laws, bookkeeping, and how to manage the media. Serious problems that affect workers such as alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and literacy are also addressed with rehabilitation centers, a peer counseling project, and participation in a citywide food security program for the urban poor, securing healthier lives for workers and their families.
What do you think?
KVSS is improving the status of the dalits, or untouchables, that are working in city waste dumps, but how can their lives really get better if their placement—and therefore treatment—in society is embedded in the caste system? How are these social distinctions similar to our society?Post your comments below: