Ashabai Doke is an ecofriendly entrepreneur from Aurangabad, Maharashtra. She is associated with Civic Response Team (CRT^) - an organization from the same city working in the field of solid waste management. She is also the chief organizer a union of wastepickers in Aurangabad.
She manages dry waste collection shops and provides better earnings to seven wastepicker women. Her efforts have been instrumental in improving working conditions and income of other 40 wastepickers/sanitary workers. In association with CRT and Aurangabad Municipal Corparation, she looks forward to expand her work and improve the life conditions of many more such workers.
She was invited to Paris for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Conference of the Parties 21 (UNFCCC CoP21) to share her experiences and thoughts however unfortunately she couldn’t go.
A wastepicker turned an entrepreneur here she shares her extraordinary life journey.
FROM A WASTE PICKER TO AN ENTREPRENEUR, PLEASE SHARE YOUR LIFE JOURNEY WITH US.
I was born in a small village, could learn only up to the 3rd standard and married off at the age of 12 years. Though I was married into a farmers’ family, the region was drought prone and agriculture was a lost cause. We moved to Aurangabad 25 years ago. Initially tried my hand on other works but couldn’t get any regular one. Finally went for picking waste with some relative women who were living nearby. I stepped into the pile of waste some 20 years ago and I am still in the same business, just slightly better placed than others.
The scrap dealer to whom I was selling my collection had sold his shop to someone else. The new shop owner was cutting on weight saying the waste is wet and it weighs more. One day, even after the end of monsoon and the waste being dry he cut on my weight. I asked him, “Why do you do this? I won’t sell my collection to you.” He said, “You have no option, where will you sell?” I took it as a challenge. I took a piece of land on lease for Rs.2000 per month and started collecting waste material there. After a month bigger scrap dealer came to me and offered 2 to 3 rupees extra after each kilo of each scrap item (i.e. paper, cardboard, plastic bags, water bottles etc). Thus my business took off in 2010.
After a few months I fell ill. I couldn’t run the set up for the next four years. I kept paying the rent. My whole family had to adopt several austerity measures to manage this unproductive expenditure. However we did because we wanted to retain the place which otherwise could have been lost immediately. Even now the other scrap dealers try to snatch it from me. They approach the landlady and offer more rent but as the lady has greater faith in me she has not given in to them.
In January 2015, with the help of a woman relative I reopened my shop. She gave me Rs. 30,000, with this money I paid the debt of three wastepicker women and freed them from a scrap dealer. After some time, advocate Umarikar also helped with Rs.50,000 and now I have seven women selling their waste directly to me and 40 others working with me through a contractor from Waluj.
|Sorting lives : around 50 wastepicker and sanitary workers sell their waste to Ashabai.|
Photo : Parikshit Suryavanshi
YOU SAID YOU FREED THE WOMEN, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
In the time of crisis like illness which is quite regular due to the unhygienic working and living conditions, marriage of a girl child etc, wastepicker women have to borrow money from the scrap dealer. He gives money on the condition that the woman will sell her collection to him only. They cheat on weight, cut on rates, however these illiterate women don’t understand it. They are trapped into a vicious cycle.
SETTING FREE A BONDED LABOUR MUST NOT BE EASY. ARE THERE ANY LEGAL ISSUES? KINDLY ELABORATE ON THIS.
Actually this is an informal transaction. There are no written documents. However a scrap dealer knows how to recover his money. For him, it is rather an investment. He uses all sorts of argument and convincing tactics to retain the wastepickers.
When I pay the debt of a wastepicker woman and free her from a scrap dealer it certainly irritates him. But they don’t argue with me as they understand it is a part of the business. However they do indulge in creating problems for me.
Full of problems, unending debt, deception and exploitation - life of wastepickers is abysmally hopeless. Ashabai, being one of them, is trying to bring some light to their lives.Photo – Parikshit Suryavanshi
HOW WAS YOUR DAILY ROUTINE AS A WASTEPICKER?
I would get up at half past three or four, prepare food for the entire family and leave for collection by five in the morning. Collect waste till one in the afternoon. Then come to the scrap dealer where the sorting took us at least three hours. Thus I could return home only after 12 hours at around five pm, after which I had to do household works like preparing food, cleaning vessels, washing clothes etc. I couldn’t sleep before 10 at night. Every wastepicker woman lives almost the same routine.
HOW DID YOU COME IN CONTACT WITH CRT?
I used to collect waste in Sindhi colony of Aurangabad but couldn’t go for sometime due to illness. One day I went and I saw Natasha Zarine and Gauri Mirashi of CRT, they were working on a solid waste management project there. They told me not to collect waste in that area. Their assumption was wastepickers scatter the waste. They had also appointed two wastepicker women to collect waste directly from the households however they were collecting only quality plastic that can fetch better price and leaving plastic bags behind.
I argued with Natasha and Gauri that I collect waste from this area for several years and they could not expel me like this. They agreed to let me collect in the other part of the same colony. When they saw my work they liked it. We got to know each other, and they accommodated me in their work. Now I accompany them in every new area they start a project. Usually the wastepickers don’t listen to anybody and just do what they want however when they see me as one of them and how I made my progress they are convinced. I responsibility is to teach them how to collect all dry waste material and keep the surroundings clean.
IS CRT HELPING OTHER WASTEPICKERS TOO?
Yes. CRT’s work is a great help. In Waluj, an industrial suburb of Aurangabad, CRT has implemented a solid waste management project wherein dry and wet wastes are segregated at source and collected differently. Wet waste is composted and dry waste is brought to my shop, the second one, started with the help of CRT. There are 40 contracted wastepickers and sanitary workers. Earlier they were given 3000 rupees per month that too not on time, now, after implementation of the project they receive Rs.6000 per month in hand and Rs.1700 towards Provident Fund. The money generated from dry waste is also distributed among them. CRT has made all these arrangements.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO FOR THE WASTEPICKERS?
Quality of life of wastepickers can be improved if they get the full remuneration for their waste collection. This is possible if their debts are paid and they are freed from the clutches of the fraud scrap dealers. For this, I will have to expand my business and pay their debts. There are seven to eight thousand wastepickers in the city I want to set free as many as possible.
If I receive financial help from an organisation or an individual and if I can free at least 50 women my work will start. Loan taken for paying their debt can be paid in a year and more women can be released.
I need a piece of land to expand my business. There are many such unused sites belonging to the corporation of Aurangabad. If corporation gives me one such piece of land to operate it can help in the welfare of the wastepickers.
Ashabai’s emphasis is on expanding her own business and thereby uplifting her wastepicker sisters by involving them into it.
Photo – Parikshit Suryavanshi
WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FROM THE GOVERNMENT AND THE SOCIETY?
I request from the depth of my heart to the government to ban the sale of liquor. At every nook and corner of a slum area there is a liquor shop. The children of poor are easily getting addicted. Husbands harass their wives, take away their hard earned money and waste it on drinking. It has destroyed and is destroying innumerable poor families. Stern steps must be taken to stop this havoc.
Second thing, we don’t want our children to be wastepickers. They must be educated. Life conditions of wastepickers are so bad that they can’t even think of educating their children. The abject poverty bound their children to accompany them to the field. Thus they are thrown into this business from their very childhood.
The dirty look of some people towards a wastepicker woman and false allegations of theft are also important concerns.
Frequent illness is also a major cause of misery. People throw unhygienic waste into the garbage. It hurts them. Such wastes should be disposed of in a scientific manner. Government should provide free and quality health services to this lowest stratum of the society.
Government needs to do a proper survey of wastepickers in the city. Today fake wastepickers usurp benefits of the government schemes meant for wastepickers.
KINDLY TELL US SOME OF THE MOST MEMORABLE INCIDENTS FROM YOUR LIFE?
Once an eighteen year old boy attempted to rape a seven year old girl of a wastepicker woman. Her parents went to the police station. The authorities, instead of filing an FIR took their complaint on a blank paper. They made no enquiries and no arrests. When I came to know of the incident I gathered some women and went them to the police station. We insisted that the FIR should be registered and the boy must be arrested. If he is absconding his parents must be arrested or else we will sit on “Dharana”. The police then agreed to our demands and arrested the boy. Now the case is going on in the court. The girl’s parent felt intimidated and thought of leaving the place but we assured them that our organization will stand behind them. They felt secure with this support.
In another incident a wastepicker sister died in a blast that took place in a waste pile. No attention was paid by government in this matter. We, through our organization went to see the collector and got an aid of Rs.30,000 for her family. I feel sad that we could do only this little for her and the culprits remained unpunished.
Some people make false allegations of thievery on wastepickers. The organization immediately intervenes and the false allegations are taken back which otherwise could turn into lot of harassment. Such is the pressure of the organization.
All these memories are painful as well as satisfying. Painful because I see my wastepicker sisters suffering a lot and satisfying in the sense that I could at least do something for them.
HOW WERE YOU INVITED TO UNFCCC CoP21 AT PARIS? WHY YOU COULDN’T GO? HOW DID YOU FEEL?
Natasha Zarine of CRT gave a presentation at a conference organized by Alliance of Indian Wastepickers (AIW) in Hyderabad. There she told my story of becoming an entrepreneur from a wastepicker. The AIW people were quite impressed. They applied to UNFCCC CoP21 through Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCC) for my participation. Thus I was selected and invited to talk on my life struggle, sustainable and equitable solid waste management solutions and a cleaner, better and equitable world for all.
I couldn’t get my visa to go to Paris. Its reasons are yet unknown to me. However we tried our best till the last moment. We were greatly shocked due to the cancellation of my journey. We felt sorry. I was to represent the people who are most affected by climate change. Sadly I couldn’t take their voice to the world.
First published in The Hindu's Bussiness Line Ink :