This report is the first of a 12-part series on the changing face of the Indian slum, chronicaling stories of new social and economic trends in our impoverished neighbourhoods. We start with a narrative from Bengaluru, where a bunch of women have organised themselves to launch a waste management start-up and, in doing, take charge of their lives.
With one hand on her hip and the other gesturing in the direction of a garbage truck driver, Sarojamma issues orders to her team with the efficiency of a drill master. Around her, a group of women, and a few men, are sweeping different stretches of a road in Whitefield as a tractor carrying neatly segregated dry waste — a concept not followed by all garbage contractors —rumbles behind them. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this Bengaluru neighbourhood, which is no longer an Anglo-Indian outpost and has transformed itself into an IT hub, all sparkling in steel and glass.
Sarojamma, 48, in her bright orange sari, her hair neatly tied in a scarf, is as much a part of this neighbourhood’s growth as the ‘techies’ in their well-fitted formals and polished shoes sitting in their cubicles. She is part of a 30-member group which toils from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., keeping three areas in the locality spotless.
They have been doing this since 2000; now they are fighting contractors for their right to re-establish themselves as an independent waste management start-up. More than a decade after they established themselves as a self-help group and savoured the sweet taste of success, they find their livelihood under threat, their identity pared down to sub-contractors.
Fourteen years ago, the residents of the Shankarapura slum in Kadugodi were leading a different life. “Some of us worked as domestic helps; others were labourers. I used to make pappads,” recalls Sarojamma, who was earning less than Rs. 600 a month.
All that changed when a field officer from the (erstwhile) City Municipal Corporation (CMC) suggested that they organise themselves. “That’s when we decided to form a collective and take up garbage collection for the CMC,” says Sarojamma.
The journey thereon is something similar to a cinematic plot, one of the success of the underdog. The self-help group ‘Sadar’ was born and each of the members started pooling in Rs. 50 a month. They got on to the job, collecting garbage from each house, cleaning the streets and transporting the waste. As money trickled in, they opened a bank account.
Soon enough, they were able to purchase a tractor from the CMC for over Rs. 4 lakh with the help of a bank loan and a Rs. 1.5 lakh subsidy from the Corporation. “Our earnings saw a spike from Rs. 32,000 to over Rs. 3 lakh a month,” says 58-year-old Venkatamma, with pride.
But everything changed in 2010 when the CMC became defunct and Whitefield came under the purview of the newly formed Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. The collective of waste managers was reduced to becoming sub-contractors. Instead of getting contracts directly from the civic body, they had to report to a contractor after being deemed ineligible to participate in the tender process.
“You see this area today? It is so clean because we keep it so. We have been doing this for years. We want to get a separate contract for what we do like we used to before,” says Ms. Sarojamma. She and her colleagues are determined to regain their hard-won ground and have been fighting it out in court with the corporation. A favourable verdict will make them realise the dream of having a basic entrepreneurial requirement: an office.
What’s happening in Shankarapura is not an exception, but is playing out in different avatars across the city. Bengaluru's slums are seeing a quiet revolution in their narrow lanes.
The Domestic Workers Rights Union with 3,000 members is one group that is shining light on the empowerment of a set of people that many cannot do without, but would prefer to ignore: household helps. Union members intervene in personal problems, be it an abusive husband or harassment from in-laws and professional ones such as being asked to quit without notice or false accusations of theft.
The biggest takeaway of being part of the union, they say, is finding their voice and putting it to use. It’s a voice that employers can no longer ignore. “We have rescued children who were employed illegally, and adults who had been employed against their will and confined to the house for 24 hours,” says 23-year-old member Radha K.
But how much one earns is heavily dependent on the area and the kind of house they work in. Thirty-year-old Vannamma, the current president of the union, works in Koramangala — a relatively “posh” area known for its quaint cafes — where she cooks, cleans and babysits for families. Yet her dream of converting her sheet house in Venkatapura into a permanent structure like her neighbours' is still a long way off.
“It is difficult to get a loan if your only source of income is cleaning and cooking,” she says.