What You Can’t Avoid

Finally (and I say finally because it has taken six months) I experienced some of Kolkata’s infamous poverty.  Like almost everything in India, poverty has it’s own hierarchy. The term “rag-picker” wasn’t one that I’d heard commonly until I arrived here.  Around the corner from the Consulate, across from a relatively upscale shopping complex and next to the Barista coffee house is a strip of pavement that serves as a garbage dump.  Because it’s been used as a garbage dump for some time, there isn’t much pavement left.  There’s dirt, and there are holes in the dirt where rats that would put DC rats to shame live.  Most times when I walk by the pile of trash, there are at least two men and two women picking through the trash (rag-pickers of a sort) as a child of about one sits on the dirt next to the garbage pile.  This is in a nice, business area of town, mind you.

Kolkata of course, has slums as well as garbage piles.  Official slum areas are organized and supported by the government.  People buy houses in these slums, and receive services such as electricity and shared water from pipes near the streets.  Piggybacking on the slums however, are, well, more slums.  The difference being that these particular slums (let’s call them shantytowns for ease of distinction) are illegal.  They line the railroad tracks, which are also government property, but they haven’t been sanctioned by the government because the land these shanties sit on is supposed to be used by the railroads.  And besides, it’s dangerous on railroad tracks.  But danger gives way to necessity.

If you live in these shantytowns, you’re policed and beholden to local shantytown mobsters who charge you for electricity and the plastic sheeted shack you might call home.  You can spot these goondas — they have cell phones.  These shantytown dwellers also live under the thumb of the “official” slum-dwellers who can bask in their legal status, knowing that someone somewhere cares about them, if only as a voting bloc.  So you’re trapped between your illegal status and the railway lines and the mobsters who dictate who gets what house and what job, etc.  Plus, you’re probably not Bengali but from someplace else, so that as a last resort people can get provincial on you and tell you to go back to your Hindi-speaking kin.  It’s in these shantytowns that many rag-pickers live. (There’s a 3rd class of dirt poor who are called “pavement dwellers.” The term is self-explanatory.  They’re another story.)

In the rag-picker profession, there’s more hierarchy.  Someone, usually a trash retailer, manages to have the trash delivered to the shantytown.  The garbage is spread about, on the railway tracks, on the road, or in a “godown” (warehouse) which is nothing more than four walls with some branches serving as a roof. Rag-pickers sort through the trash, dividing up the usable and recyclable items.  Plastic, cloth, paper, it’s all sorted to some degree.  6-7 year old rag-pickers make about 10 rupees a day.  An adult might make 40-50.  Once it’s sorted, the trash is loaded up onto a truck and delivered to a wholesaler or in some cases directly to a recycling center.  So there it is, the rag-picking hierarchy: rag-picker to retailer to wholesaler to recyclers.

A local NGO is trying to get contracts with businesses, including multi-national corporations and housing boards to pick through their waste.  Contracts with hotels to go through the restaurant’s throwaway food too.  The problem is that even trash is owned, a commodity if you will, and you can’t just have a bunch of rag-pickers come to the Cognizant office building and sort through trash, it’s got to be sent to the shantytowns where they live.

I spent a few hours walking through these shantytowns.  This was primarily a Muslim community, with some migrants from Bihar and perhaps Bangladesh.  Globalization’s losers who never had a chance in the first place.  Some of the kids who live there may get mainstreamed into the crappy Indian educational system in that area because of the work of some NGOs.  Most won’t.  These people who make up the slums and the shanties and the pavement dwellers are not a minority population, they’re about 30% of India, or 330 million people.

While it’s incredible in itself that such a system operates and keeps people alive in some form of human existence (is it really?) I keep coming back to the same question.  What is the India rising, shining, poised that everyone is talking about?


One Comment

  1. Another experience most Americans will never have but should see for themselves. The first time I went to India I returned grateful for everything I had, even the bad stuff. India is overwhelming in general, but I left with a strong sense that “there but for the grace of God….” It’s just dumb luck to be born where we are, with what means we are. Of course there are ways to change one’s status and fight upward, but against the backdrop of such obstacles, I can imagine it’s an extraordinary person who can escape such difficult circumstances. And there are kids in the USA pouting right now because they didn’t get their favorite new videogame.


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