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     Volume 7 Issue 12 | March 21, 2008 |

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Bharati Chaturvedi

Kavita Charanji

Bharati Chaturvedi

Plastic bags are the nightmare of environmentalists all over the world. Countries from Ireland to Australia are cracking down on the bags and action is beginning to take off in the US. While in Taiwan and Ireland, one pays for such bags, they have been banned in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bhutan. Africa and Mumbai are also on the list and Paris is slated to follow suit.

The scenario in India on the whole is dismal. Despite bans in Mumbai, Jaipur and many other places, the country still has plastic bags. Even if there are a few plastic bag-free places, they are still surrounded by others inundated by such bags.

India has been slow in taking action such as a tough policy and disincentives against the widespread usage of plastics. One reason, says Bharati Chaturvedi, founder-director of the environmental NGO Chintan, is the heavy clout wielded by the corporate sector that manufactures virgin plastics. Reliance Petrochemicals, in particular, she says, “dictates a lot of policy.” As she points out, “The company knows how to manipulate the government to protect itself. Many bureaucrats are very open to working with big corporate interests rather than look at what India really needs. We are never going to have an honest policy look at what to do with plastics. The country will always have the likes of Reliance skewing policy against the national interest.”

And what of rumours that this corporate giant is entering the field of waste management? Bharati's message to citizens is to see that small mom and pop enterprises or individual people rather than big companies pick up waste from their homes. In this way, she says the poorer recyclers will not be deprived of their livelihood. “You have the right to give your waste to someone who is poor, rather than a fat cat business agglomerate because it is your waste. Until your waste reaches the garbage dump it is nobody else's business but your own; you should assert your rights.”

Stagnant water and polythene bags on the bed of the Sukhna choe in. Chandigarh pose a serious health hazard to scores of city residents. photocredit: Vinay Malik, The Tribune.

The recycler, a more dignified term of appellation for the waste picker, says Bharati deserves “environmental justice.” Describing Chintan's mission, she says, “ We work towards social and environmental justice as well as a dignified existence for the recyclers, particularly women and children and facilitate better education and livelihood opportunities. Most of these people are poor and exposed to extreme toxics and hazardous waste. Chintan strives to advocate for sustainable consumption and safer toxic-free materials as a means to safe and environmentally sustainable products which do not affect the health of the recyclers or the community.”

What about the achievements on the ground? There have been many for the 150, 000 recyclers in Delhi, says Bharati. Primarily Chintan has given them a niche and a voice in the city. Subsequently the community finds a mention in policy forums as important players in the economy. “The National Environmental Policy of 2006 actually acknowledges that they need to be recognised and given their due,” asserts Bharati.

Another headway is that they have acquired the dignity of labour. Chintan has enabled many recyclers to carry out their occupation safely and without the fear of having to shell out bribes or get beaten up by the police.

The education of the recycling community is a major empowerment tool of Chintan. The organisation has established four education centres in Delhi slums as part of its No Child in Bins programme. The objective is to make education an integral part of life for children of waste recyclers. The focus is on non-formal and formal education, practical skills and awareness of their rights so that they can graduate from being child labour to full time students, making independent decisions about their work and lives.

Waste recycler women are encouraged to earn their livelihoods through a Chintan partnership with Maurya

Sheraton Hotel. Having procured a loom which the women can use to weave plastic into beautiful and eco-friendly purses, bags, folders, carpets and more, Chintan has been allotted a space at the hotel from where the women operate. The Metamorphosis project, as it is called, advocates environmental awareness while equipping the impoverished women with vocational skills.

Chintan also seeks to popularise its Zero Waste Programme in many schools. With its emphasis on the slogan of 'Reduce, Reuse and Recycle', students and staff learn to segregate waste at the source, using the coloured bin system (Red stands for non-biodegradable, Green for bio-degradable and Blue for paper). Another aim is to sensitise the school children to the waste recycler's unhygienic working conditions, their economic situation and lack of education. Chintan has launched a system by which the children segregate waste properly and deliver it to the waste recycler. In the process they help the recyclers to reduce segregation time and allow the children of these hard pressed people to attend classes.

These are creditable steps to ameliorate the lot of the recyclers. In the process, Chintan has built bridges with a range of stake holders: municipal offices, recyclers, policy makers, waste managers, community residents, corporate managers, activists, school children, doctors and scientists. Having set the ball rolling, the organisation is a beacon of hope for many an impoverished waste recycler.

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