The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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Written by Safai Sena


Country India

August 09, 2013

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safai sena logo

by Safai Sena

Picking trash is a narrow window of economic opportunity that provides a meager income for Manwara Begum and her family. An opportunity to make ends meet, an opportunity of giving her children a better and more secure future. Manwara, a waste picker, has been in Delhi since her childhood. She chose this work to add to the income of her husband, who is also a waste picker. Recently, Manwara’s dream turned ugly when her innocent children were blamed for a theft that happened in a nearby area. She was unaware that her being waste picker would make her so vulnerable to being accused, harassed, and violently abused.

Manwara Begum collects waste from households and through her work, she keeps the city clean, providing an indispensable environmental and public health service. Manwara and her husband are members of Safai Sena, a registered association of waste pickers and small waste traders.

The ordeal began on July 19, 2013 when Manwara Begum’s younger son, Naseem, aged 10, went to play near a community centre in his area with a bunch of his friends. There, he was accosted by some locals attending a religious ceremony who accused him of stealing an envelope containing money. The locals badly thrashed the child and tortured him with live electric wires at the community centre. His elder brother Waseem, aged 14, came looking for his younger brother and he too was dragged and assaulted by the locals. The nearest police station was immediately informed by the locals about the incident and the officers on duty were expected to intervene to stop the heinous act. Instead, they showed their inhuman and unlawful side by being mere spectators to the atrocious act. Later the same evening, Manwara’s husband and children were taken to the police station where the officers took the children to a separate room. The children were abused and kicked brutally. When Manwara tried to intervene, they slapped her.

A helpless and frustrated Manwara then approached Chintan and Safai Sena who advised her to file a First Information Report (FIR) as a first step. An FIR is a written document prepared by police when they receive information about the commission of a cognizable offense. Her letter was accepted by the police, but yet again, they accused her of being a thief, and told her that the FIR would be filed only after the matter had been investigated. A few days later, the police took Manwara and her children to a hospital for a medical examination. At the hospital, the police kept talking to the doctor quietly to possibly tamper with the report.

Meanwhile, Manwara’s children were sent to the Juvenile Justice Board. At the first meeting, the children were unable to speak for themselves because the police had threatened to murder their family if they opened their mouths in front of the judge. Since then, the police started to threaten them by visiting their house and harassing them. But the children have now become much more confident and have been able to tell the truth at subsequent meetings with the Board.

The incident has left Manwara in a state of anger and helplessness. She says that even though she belongs to one of the lowest rungs of Indian society, this should not mean that different principles of justice should not apply to her. To seek justice that is her due, Safai Sena wrote letters to the Dr. Kiran Walia, Honourable Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Women and Child Department, Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and Ms. Barkha Singh, Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women.

In addition to writing the letters, Safai Sena members accompanied Manwara and her husband to demand an audience with Ms. Barkha Singh on July 26, 2013. She accepted the complaint and confirmed that strict action will be taken against all the duty officers if found guilty. All police officers involved in this case will be summoned to the Commission in the following 15 days to investigate this matter. In addition, on the same day, Safai Sena members went to the Special Police Unit meeting and put the matter in front of Joint Commissioner of Police, Delhi Police Women’s Cell. The office also reaffirmed to Manwara that strict action would be taken against the people involved in this case.

The incident has been traumatic and taxing for Manwara and her family. But she has accepted that she will need to become more vigilant in future and now has the confidence to raise her voice for injustice. Regardless of these mildly positive outcomes, the incident is unacceptable and a complete violation of the rights of the poor who serve the city through waste collection and waste recycling. We all should hope that justice is rendered to her and her family and that the voices of millions of women across the world continue to be strengthened.

  1. Agradecemos enormemente esta información y nos solidarizamos con Manwara Begum, su familia y Safai Sena, su organización de base. Estaremos pensando que acción podemos realizar para pedir justicia.

    Saludos fraternales.

    Translated to English: “We thank you enormously for this information and we are together in solidarity with Manwara Begum, her family and Safai Sena, your base organization. We are thinking of an action we can do to call for justice.

    Fraternal greetings/in solidarity,

    Alicia Montoya
    Resp.Equipo Técnico
    Cooperativa de Recuperadores Urbanos
    El Alamo

    Comment by Alicia Montoya — September 11, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  2. Isso mostra o quanto a luta dos catadores ainda é árdua e pesada e é triste ver e saber que companheiros ainda são discriminados. Valeu a informação. Abraços!

    Translated to English: This shows how arduous and heavy the waste pickers’ struggle is still. It’s so sad to see and know that our brothers and sisters are still being discriminated against. Thank you so much for the information.

    Many hugs,
    Gilberto Warley Chagas

    Comment by Gilberto Warley Chagas — September 11, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  3. Hola,

    Conciente estamos de que quienes buscanen los vertederos o hacen su recoleccion no son ladrones, si no mas personas que tratan de ganarse la vida de la mejor manera y como ellos lo saben hacer.

    El trabajo del buzo-reciclador es una labor ardua y peligrosa, esoso hermanos enfrentan la muerte diariamente y las autoridades no hacen nada para ayudarlo.

    Desde aqui poyemos a la familias de Safai Sena, en dheli- india, reenviando el apoyo moral a cuanta personas conozcamos, para que este reclamos de respecto a los recicladores llegue a las autoridades de la India.

    In English: Hello,

    We know very well that the people that collect recyclable materials in the dumps and cities are not thieves but people that work to make a living in the most dignified way and in the manner in which they know best.

    The waste pickers’ work is an arduous and dangerous labor. Our brothers and sisters confront death on a daily basis and the authorities don’t do anything to help us.

    All the way from across the world, we support the families of Safai Sena, in Delhi, India, sending moral support and sharing this story, so that these demands for respect for waste pickers reach the authorities in India.

    Nicolas Mendoza

    Comment by Nicolas Mendoza — September 11, 2013 @ 12:30 pm