Indian megalopolis New Delhi would have long collapsed under the mountains of rubbish it produces if it was not for the 'waste pickers' who collect, sort and recycle the garbage. In Delhi their work is now very much appreciated.
Bharati Chaturvedi will not forget this particular winter's night in New Delhi for as long as she lives: it was foggy and bitter cold outside when her car suddenly broke down at around
2 a.m. – in a city that no one would ever call safe. "I got out of the car, locked it and staggered through the pitch dark alleyways for about ten minutes, stiff with fear", she remembers. But when Chaturvedi suddenly came across a rubbish dump, she knew that people were living there. It was the poorest of the poor, stigmatised as criminals by the rest of society. Chaturvedi knew the people and woke them. Ostracised by everyone else, they immediately knew she needed help. The people walked back with her and moved her car to a safe place. "That night these people once again showed me that it was right to take a stand for them and help them", Chaturvedi says.
For a long time it had mostly been the enormous and continuously growing mountains of waste in her city that concerned Chaturvedi. She had already realised as a student that mega cities like Delhi would soon not be able to cope with the waste they produce. During her time at university in Delhi, Baltimore and New York she actively campaigned for the environment. After returning home, she did not just contribute to the guidelines for managing plastic waste, issued by the Indian Ministry of Environment, she also advised the Indian Government on its waste strategy, among other things.
"I had reached a point where I only saw all the people living in between all these mountains of rubbish, trying to survive on whatever they could pull out of the waste and still use or sell on", Chaturvedi says. People without education, forced to live in the most inhumane conditions. "I suddenly realised what a huge contribution these 'waste pickers' make towards conserving the environment and how they are treated with an utter lack of respect in return", Chaturvedi says. At the same time she realised that a paradigm shift in Indian society was needed to change this.
With Chintan, the environmental and human rights protection organisation she founded in 1999, Chaturvedi wanted to kick-start this change. Chintan means: a different way of thinking. What she means by this is reflected in the various initiatives of the not-for-profit organisation and its wide network of international, political, social and private partnerships. They include "Pick my Trash", a service that invites businesses, fast food chains, hotels, shopping malls as well as domestic consumers to have their waste collected at their door for a fee. "This has the advantage of plastic, paper and other recyclable material no longer ending up with the rest of the rubbish and possibly even being burnt", Chaturvedi says. Chintan has long since become a force to be reckoned with. With the support of various agencies and private initiatives its teams collect more than 25 tonnes of waste per day and recycle almost 70 per cent of it. Delhi's 'waste pickers' are proud that they are gaining respect in this way, especially since they now earn a living from what they do for their city. Chintan already helps send more than 1,300 children to school, enabling them to decide for themselves which job they want to do one day. "It is important to me that children will no longer be forced into doing the same job their parents do, but are free to choose", Chaturvedi explains.
Chintan also has some food for thought in store for the Indian middle classes and gets, for example, young people from privileged backgrounds to volunteer on the city's waste mountains. "This gives them the opportunity to see things from a different perspective for a change", Chaturvedi says. She wants to harness the curiosity and empathy of young people – knowing they can act as influencers of their generation.
When Chaturvedi was awarded the Intercultural Innovation Award for her work with Chintan in 2013, she suddenly was no longer alone with her "different way of thinking". That was a new experience for her. Just like at Chintan, people as drivers of innovation are also at the heart of the award presented by BMW Group in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC). What followed for Chaturvedi was a "firework of impressions, ideas and plenty of reassurance". The award, a winter's night in Delhi... – the path is the right one. Chaturvedi will continue to follow it.