International Women's Day 2017: How Nalini Shekar transformed the lives of Bengaluru's rag pickers

Editor's Note: In the run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March, we profile little known women in South India who have fought against all odds in their local communities to bring forth change and transformation. While some of these women stand out as shining examples of the power of determination, there are others who must battle misogyny and harassment. With this series, we highlight not just the trials and tribulations faced by women in all walks of life, but also how individual women are triumphing against caste, patriarchy and discrimination. In part ten of the series, read about Nalini Shekar, who has helped change the perception of rag pickers in Bengaluru. 

Even as late as three years ago, the men and women carrying bags or pedalling cycle rickshaws loaded with huge bags of waste were referred to as rag pickers. Today, they are looked upon as environmentalists.

To the 18,000 guests at the wedding of the environment-friendly daughter of a Karnataka minister or the 55,000 devotees of the Sai Baba temple in Hunsur in Mysuru district recently or, for that matter, the organisers of marathons in Bengaluru, waste pickers have become agents of change.

They are the people who ensured that no garbage went to the landfill in the outskirts of the city to the chagrin of protesting villagers. And all the waste generated by the guests, devotees and participants was safely sent to private plants for conversion as compost.

The difference may appear subtle but there is no mistaking that it is significant. The change in approach means many things to different sections of society. And, that change would not have been possible without that crucial push. The nudge to make others understand the role of the “untouchable” who removes the waste of urban society from polluting its environs.

That ability to transform social thinking towards a valiant contributor in a multi-ethnic, multi-casteist society is not easy. It is this quality that puts Nalini Shekar in a mould of her own as an agent of transformation.

Nalini Shekar of the Hasiru Dala

Nalini Shekar of the Hasiru Dala

She is proud of the fact that, for the first time in the country, the ID card worn by the waste picker is signed by the Commissioner of the Brahut Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), in short, the Bangalore city corporation of yesteryear. And it is a similar ID card that the Commissioner himself wears around his neck.

It is a different matter that she had to go the alternative legal redressal system of the Lok Adalat to get them ID cards. Those were the days when the rag pickers, as they were called then, were the first victims of not just the stray dogs but also the police because they operated at unearthly hours. Her organisation, the Hasiru Dala or the Green party, also benefited from that because some organisations had not kept their word.

Those cards gave identity to the waste pickers; recognised them as contributing to the health of society. Her argument was simple: Imagine the plight of the city without the waste pickers. In fact, Nalini points out that without the waste pickers, the BBMP would have to spend at least Rs 100 crore more to remove waste. Not just that. Minus them, the entire recycling industry would simply collapse because it is the waste pickers who create close to 22 jobs like the scrap dealer, the small wholesaler, the packers or the repackers. Nalini, in fact, looks at them as entrepreneurs who create jobs.

Working With The Marginalised

So, how did she land up working with the waste pickers ? Her reply is simple. “There was no particular reason. I just felt that they were the most vulnerable and the marginalised,” she told Firstpost. But, a peep into her past will tell you that her approach all through has been to work for the marginalised, whether in Pune, where she cut her teeth, or in the US or back in Pune or in Bengaluru.

It is a kind of determined effort to constantly do something for the disadvantaged that has always been the characteristic of this 50-year-old Bengalurean. She was hardly four years old when her family moved into Karnataka’s capital city from Shivamogga. After acquiring a Masters in child development, she moved to Mumbai to teach social sciences at the Nirmala Niketan.

She later joined the SNDT University’s Adult Education department where she and her associates realised that teaching rich children was not their purpose in life. Even teaching poor women to sew and make papads left them with more questions than answers over the purpose of their exercise. That is when they decided to work with waste pickers. Soon enough she moved to Mumbai to raise awareness about child labour and to lobby for a more comprehensive education legislation.

But she had to leave India for the US because of her husband’s work. In the decade that followed, Nalini worked in the US among the survivors of violence, particularly the victims of trafficking. She worked with immigrant women. She got involved with training officials of FBI on cultural sensibilities. “I worked with a team then which pushed for legislation on visa for victims of violence. I realised then that violence cuts across all strata of society,” she said.

In 2007, she moved back to Pune to work among the waste pickers. Three years later, she returned to Bengaluru to carry forward her work among the waste pickers from Pune. Her statistics are revealing. A waste picker earns anywhere between Rs 150 to Rs 300 a day and, may be a little more, if they began working from 4 am. Normally, each waste picker carries about 60 kgs of waste but there are also some who carry up to 500 kgs on a cycle rickshaw.

Carrying that kind of weight explained the health problems afflicting the waste pickers. A health camp had reported a large number of them having musculo-skeletal issues. “Unfortunately one aspect in which we have not conducted a proper study of their bone density,” is one regretful note in Nalini’s narrative.

But, there are several other aspects in which Hasiru Dala has progressed. It has expanded its activities to other cities like Mysuru, Tumakuru and Nelamangala. Out of the 10,000 waste pickers who are in touch with Hasiru Dala, nearly 4,000 are directly involved in its activities. And 800 jobs have been created from among them.

From just one or two entrepreneurs about two years ago, Hasiru Dala now boasts of 40 entrepreneurs among the waste pickers. These, in turn, have hired other waste pickers. The success story of these entrepreneurs is such that one of the entrepreneurs last week bought a one tonne truck to carry waste.

These entrepreneurs run collection centres for segregated waste from 25,000 apartments and houses in Bengaluru. And it is not just collection of waste that they do. They have now expanded their domain to terrace and backyard gardening. “We identified among them those who have some farming background. And these include women. So they go and do gardening in the apartments and houses,” said Nalini.

But, the joy in her voice is evident when she talks about the education fund that has been facilitated through crowd funding by an organisation called Rang De. Last year, 150 waste pickers got an education loan of Rs 10,000 each to educate their children.

There cannot be a better example of making a difference to the lives of the marginalised than assisting the next generation to stand on its own feet. This is the transformation that one woman’s concern for the marginalised can bring about.

Also read parts one, two, threefour, fivesix, seven, eight and nine of the series.

Take our International Women's Day quiz.


Published Date: Mar 08, 2017 11:49 am | Updated Date: Mar 08, 2017 01:21 pm

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