More oft than not we hear of bold and powerful leaders – those who sacrifice everything for a nobler cause and shape history, and those who have the power to shake industries and affect millions across the globe. Then there are those leaders that quietly go about getting things done. These everyday heroes work their way through unjust systems as an insider chipping away at barriers and creating small opportunities day in, day out. Why, we wonder? The simple answer is that almost every social issue we face cannot be solved by big decisions from the top – it takes meticulous planning and undying efforts that start right at the nitty-gritty bottom, a place far away from the spotlight. And yet, it’s these patient, unspectacular everyday efforts that ultimately snowball into something great, something that can shake up things and how! Much like Dr. Verghese Kurien, who single-handedly heralded the white revolution, transforming the lives of dairy farmers across the country through community owned cooperatives. The change he invoked was so profound to the extent that India emerged as the largest milk-producer in the world!
So it is the case with Nalini Shekar. Working tirelessly from behind the scenes, she has time and time again reorganized entire
eco-systems from inside out. And like Dr. Kurien, Nalini has proven that even the most unglamorous fields possible (think waste!) have the potential of being a million-dollar industry. And she has simultaneously empowered hundreds of thousands of Dalits or ‘Untouchables’, a highly marginalized community at the bottom of India’s rigid caste system, to a point where they have become the cogs and lynchpins in Bangalore’s and Pune’s garbage management systems.
She thinks big. She thinks far down the line. She doesn’t ignore minute details that may seem trivial to others. Above all, she isn’t afraid to fight the system for justice. Today her organization, Hasiru Dala has grown into a major social enterprise that has transformed a hitherto disorganized waste sector into a unique, self-sustainable empire of sorts. And it’s obvious that Nalini isn’t it in for fame or glory. It piqued our interest and so we at AnuPartha sat down to have a chat with the woman who dared to take on a literally ‘untouchable’ issue, a seemingly little thing that had tremendous consequences, simply because it was the right thing to do.
Nalini kicked off her career as a professor at VHD Central Institute of Home Science, Bangalore before moving to the Nirmala Niketan College of Home Science in Mumbai. When she first started out, she had no clue that she would eventually move so far away from her initial area of interest – pre-school education. She soon realized that the ugly truth was only the rich people could afford this kind of service and so she turned her attention to addressing the issue of child labor and street children. However as were her circumstances, Nalini kept moving with her husband across cities. It was an early lesson that she learned and it has shaped her perspective in the years that followed. “Wherever I go, I have to create a system that will bring in change. Whether I am there or not should not matter!”
In Pune, Nalini along with her friends Poornima Chikarmane and Lakshmi Narayan sought to work with the adult education department at SNDP University but they were soon disillusioned. Instead this group of youngsters decided to tackle a different issue they soon realized that the most vulnerable group were the street children, especially those from the Dalit community, most of who were waste pickers. Nalini highlights just how marginalized they were. “Even within the slum, they were in the outskirts…and they were the untouchables.” She knew this was just what she wanted to work with and it marked a turning point in her life. Nalini wholeheartedly attributes her development of critical thinking on social justice to this one eventful year she spent at Pune with her friends. “They inspired and framed my thoughts on social justice as I had no prior background with these issues.”
It was here that Nalini and her friends experimented with the concept of door-to-door pickup of segregated waste, a move that was well ahead of the curve back then. This was long before the law on segregation was even conceived. Of course there were innumerable challenges that were unique to the Dalits. Nalini explains “It was difficult to break the mindset of the people and every day they would call me and say, ‘Didi please come with me today.’” One day, out of the blue, she found that someone had usurped this burgeoning business. “There were people who saw us collecting waste and realized that there was a huge business opportunity here.” And they played foul by campaigning against the Dalits, terming them as dirty waste pickers! This backfired though as an indignant Nalini and her friends decided to tackle this by forming a union.
“Back in 1997, nobody, least of all the waste pickers, thought of themselves as a labor force!” There was such a stigma around this group of people – many thought they were beggars or petty thieves! It was challenge, but this group of determined women eventually convinced the municipal corporation to give identity cards to the waste pickers. What really hit home was a study done in association with the International Labor Organization (ILO) that emphasized just how much this unsung labor force was saving for Pune city. “They are picking up and recycling the waste that otherwise, the Municipal Corporation of Pune would have had to spend an estimated $1.12 million to sort out!” With these hard facts in hand, they pushed for reforms such as free insurance and labor rights.
This is when Nalini and her friends first decided to implement a user fee model based on door-to-door garbage collection, where the waste pickers would collect waste everyday by themselves. It was a pioneering move wherein the waste pickers were paid directly by the people they served rather than depending on the municipal corporation for salaries. And with this approach India’s first wholly owned cooperative movement of self-employed waste pickers was born in Pune and continues to date under the SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) banner that was instituted by Poornima and Lakshmi.
Today the SWaCH Bharat door-to door waste collection in Pune is being touted as the best waste program across the country with about 8000 people under it. That’s how big this movement has grown today long after Nalini has moved on…
Following her relocation to Mumbai, Nalini continued her agenda to push for compulsory child education and prohibition of child labor over the next few years. Her next stop was the US. It should have been an exciting chapter but Nalini was restless and unhappy. “I am very hands-on person, and here I am sitting in front of a computer and talking about poverty.” She knew it was time to look for something that was close to her heart. More than anything she wanted to get involved in local issues and actually be involved in working with people. This led her to volunteer at non-profit organizations like Maitri and Next Door Solutions that were focused on women (and children) who faced domestic violence. It was here Nalini once again focused her attention on the most vulnerable and yet oft overlooked groups – immigrants.
Over the next few years, Nalini pushed for legislative support in California especially for women immigrants, and victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. She also created a pool of pro-bono legal help to fight for the rights of immigrants. Her sense of satisfaction at this achievement is palpable. “Today I think 300 people are still there in that pool. So, in that sense, whatever I worked on is continuing there”. Nalini also worked across several boards, be it training judges on cultural sensitivity or working with the FBI and ICE agents on immigrants. It was a tough mindset to break and yet Nalini succeeded through sheer effort and a determination to see it through.
Change was slow to come, but it did gradually. When she started at Next Door Solution, they were servicing around 1200 people and when she left, the number had swelled to 11,000 people! A recent visit to San Jose showcased just how much of an impact Nalini has had. The County’s annual domestic violence conference’s main focus point was local immigrant issues, which hitherto had largely been ignored. Another noticeable change was at the social service department which had not been very conductive to immigrants. An evaluative study carried out by Nalini earlier had highlighted this issue along with various recommendations, that she was thrilled to notice, had been implemented.
“To see that kind of change is amazing – you feel WOW!”
When Nalini moved to Bangalore in 2010 she had all intentions of retiring and enjoying a slow life. Fate had other plans. The city’s rampant garbage woes goaded her into action. Bangalore’s unique contract system meant that the majority of the work was outsourced resulting in a highly fragmented and uncoordinated approach to waste. Nalini reflects on this unique predicament. “Garbage is a very big and interesting issue in Bangalore. People who work on the field like the contractors, elected representatives and bureaucrats – it is in their interest for the wastes not to be cleared!” Soon after, Hasiru Dala, meaning ‘Green Force’, was born out of the need to integrate the waste pickers into the city’s solid waste management system.
Even before organizing the waste pickers, Nalini wanted to ensure that the responsibility and ownership of garbage was entrusted with the respective civic bodies. “The city should own it” she states firmly. As always she fell back on her trusty ammunition – data! “We use study as a tool for change.” It turned out over 1050 tonnes of waste was being managed by the waste pickers, thus helping the BBMP, Bangalore’s civic and administration body, save about $12.55 million annually!
An enumeration database system was also drawn up with the onus solely on the BBMP. Thanks to Nalini’s efforts, the BBMP has issued thousands of waste pickers identity cards and with it came an innate sense of identity and satisfaction of being recognized as legitimate workers. And in testimonial to its success several other cities across India are now following this model.
With this hurdle crossed, Nalini turned her attention to large apartment complexes that were bulk generators of garbage. A straight forward service model was conceived wherein waste was segregated at the door-point and then sent to segregated centers. A fixed pay-as-much-as-you-generate pricing plan based on a ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ philosophy has encouraged better segregation practices. Above all, these moves have ensured a steady and regularized income for the waste pickers.
It was not an easy journey – Nalini has faced challenges at every step of the way ranging from hijacked vehicles and beaten up employees to daily fights with the BBMP, and even violent threats! Yet Nalini has stood strong with the support of 5000 odd waste pickers and hundreds of citizens having her back! And the results are showing up slowly and steadily.
The best part is that Hasiru Dala has achieved all this with limited financial investments and by following a waste management business model that is largely self-sustaining. In fact the initial corpus was built with a membership fee of Rs. 50 from 3000 waste pickers and with the co-founders contributing Rs. 10,000 each. Nalini is very clear in her beliefs to the point she has even turned down funding from various organizations. Her reasoning is that Hasiru Dala (and indeed other non-profit organizations as well) should remain focused on their main goals to make a proper impact, rather than spreading their resources too thin. In that case she says there are just two options to succeed – “You need to be sustainable or find a rich person to back you!”
Nalini strongly alludes that support and funding follows when one has the correct strategy and intention in place. Her mantra is straightforward. “When you do good work and you show you have done good work, money will come.” Such is the change that that Hasiru Dala has made in a short span of time that major Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arms like Wipro Cares and IT giant MindTree have tied up with them to transform waste operations through innovative technologies.
One of the biggest challenges that Nalini has faced with the waste pickers is breaking through caste barriers. Although the caste system has long since been abolished, its legacy still lingers.
Nalini decided to tackle this in a different way. Rather than raising a hue and cry over the issue, she uses social inclusion as a tool – and what more simple and effective than sharing meals? That too, the waste pickers were wary. “If we cook, will people eat it?” But it has worked – Nalini started with a seva cafe, a simple and yet radical social experiment, where the waste pickers cooked and served supporters of Hasiru Dala without any price tag and the guests paid what they felt the food was worth! The waste pickers have come a long way since and today they are even managing waste for eco-friendly weddings and corporate events under the Hasiru Dala umbrella!. And just to drive the point home, all these events are conducted in a buffet style where the people get to interact with the waste pickers themselves. “Nothing is done behind a wall and the waste pickers are walking and talking with the guests!” Nalini happily states.
The buck doesn’t stop there. As Nalini says, you need to walk the talk. Her office serves as an open forum for the waste pickers and all big decisions are taken in consultation with them. Even while hiring or recruiting volunteers at Hasiru Dala, she makes sure there is no ego involved. The first thing she tells them is that they will be paid by the waste picker – a surefire way to ensure that ego is checked right at the door! “They should eat from the waste pickers’ lunch box. If they aren’t comfortable doing that then they can’t work here.”
What is remarkable is that Nalini has focused on making the waste pickers financially independent. Hasiru Dala has imbibed a
self-sustaining franchise model where the waste pickers start out with small teams of laborers and a vehicle to collect household segregated waste. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) ensures a clear delineation of their roles with customers and that with Hasiru Dala. “They make a lot of money and they have the freedom to say that it’s my business!”
In the meanwhile, over 800 jobs have been created so far and the organization aims to create another 1000 jobs over the next two years. What is so heartening to note is that there has been a slow and steady movement that is causing a ripple effect, not only on the livelihood of the waste-pickers but also the society’s casteist mindset and the environment itself!
At Hasiru Dala itself as well, she is confident that the next level leadership is in place and is slowly moving to the background.
Nalini shares a heartening anecdote where she was recently questioned about who she was and she was ecstatic about it because it meant her new leaders were making such an impact! Such is her genuine joy in passing on the baton and creating a self-sustaining business to continue the movement that she initiated.
Nalini has constantly been crusading towards policy changes since her return to India and legislative waste reforms are well underway thanks to her undying efforts. Moreover, Hasiru Dala has received several awards such as the Kirlokskar Vasundhara award and the Karnataka Environment Award 2016 in recognition for their outstanding contribution to environmental conservation through solid waste management. So what is it that motivates Nalini to work with the waste? It is very simple for her. “For me it is the waste picker’s livelihood that is more important. Waste is the medium they work with so I work with waste. Otherwise, I am a people’s person!” Right to the point where she laughs with them, eats with them, cries with them and even fights with them! Nalini’s respect for this group of hardworking people is well known – they are her role model!
You can’t get more honest than that!
Nalini acknowledges that her efforts are just tiny drops in the ocean. But as Mother Teresa once said – ‘If those drops were not there, the ocean would be missing something. The world would be missing something.’ And so it is with Nalini Shekar and Hasiru Dala – changing the system inside out, one step at a time.
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