; jade GReen HeROeS

RaGpIckeRS OR city savers?

From the nGO acorn grows this vast oak tree of solace and respectability for hundreds of ragpickers of Dharavi, Mumbai handling the city’s toxic waste. sugatha Menon meets vinod shetty, the man behind acorn

134 I june 2010

inod Shetty is the kind of person you wish you were! He is doing what you wished you were doing…only you lack his commitment and passion for a cause and that’s what separates us ordinary beings who only think of doing something for the underprivileged from the extraordinary people who put their money, time and life where their heart is!
vinod shetty at an acorn event

Vinod Shetty is the founder of NGO Acorn which stands strong and proud on four R’s. Reduce, Recycle, Reuse and Respect. Yes, respect for the ragpickers who are the one of the main instruments in the process of recycling of the city’s dumps. According to Vinod, “Mumbai generates 10,000 tonnes of waste, if it were not for the ragpickers who pick, segregate and recycle this waste, the whole of Mumbai would have been one dumpyard!” Commendable work, but kachra is a bad word in our society and anyone dealing in it is looked down upon, and this is where the fourth R of respect for Acorn’s ragpickers comes from. A majority of the ragpickers are from Dharavi, after spending the entire day combing the city’s filthiest spots to gather waste, they all congregate at Dharavi, where the world’s largest recycling unit is located and where 80 per cent of the dry waste is reused.

environMent protectors
Vinod is an advocate by profession who runs Acorn for almost two years now.

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pHOtOGRapH: vIkRaM aDIGe

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This foundation trains the ragpickers in scientific methods of waste handling, segregation and recycling. Vinod who has been an activist for more than 25 years took up the cause of the ragpickers as a challenge as he felt that this section of our society is otherwise invisible as they do not feature in surveys and statistics. He observed, “While studying the ragpickers I realized that they were the poorest of the poor both in terms of economic strata as well as they were mainly dalits and Muslims, a large population were women and children, hence I decided that this was the section to work for as they belonged to the unorganized sector.” He has started a project called Dharavi Project, where all the ragpickers are members of the project and are given identity cards. They are involved in waste awareness programmes and are also partnering with schools in waste management. Says Vinod, “Since rag pickers don’t use the AC, nor drink mineral water, nor drive SUVs, the environmental problem is ours, not theirs. We are trying to create an

interactive bond between the ragpickers and school students.”

on the agenda
What’s on the agenda of demands from Acorn for the ragpickers? “We want to highlight their contribution to the environment. The government should set up a board whereby polluters pay a cess of about one per cent which can go towards giving the ragpickers a proper income with safety equipment like gloves and other amenities. They should be trained in handling toxic waste and have expertise in recycling goods in a non hazardous way.”
the us ambassador to india visits acorn’s waste center

Making it easier
After spending the entire day collecting waste from the city’s dumps, the ragpickers finally come to the Acorn office space, where they are given informal education in music, photography and other arts. Many eminent artists like Shankar Mahadevan, Sunita Rao, Apache Indian and Katrina Kaif have participated in such programmes. Recently Boxettes the girl band from

UK had a delightful music workshop for them. The Boxettes performance was the first of a 6-day event, Dharavi Rocks series which aims at bringing the ragpicker community into contact with some of the top international musicians and celebrities who visit Mumbai. Vinod has the last word when he says, “ The quality of any democracy is the manner in which we treat our poor. If we want to be a global city we as a civil society will have to set up systems to take care of the vulnerable sections of the society.” As I write this story, a message pops in my mailbox, the US ambassador to India is visiting Acorn’s waste segregation center today… paucity of time doesn’t permit me to go for the event, but I sincerely wish for many more mighty oaks for this Acorn.

136 I june 2010