Small Talk With Nalini Shekhar

CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Nalini Shekar of Hasiru Dala

For more than two decades, Nalini Shekhar has worked towards ensuring waste pickers have a voice in a society that treats them as outcasts. In 1997, she co-founded Kagad, Kach Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), union of waste pickers in Pune. She says: “Waste pickers are such strong-willed people. They have to fight on the streets with the municipality, citizens and even dogs. They are shunned by the people in their own communities. And yet, they always continue to smile and do their work. I see them as cacti, standing tall against all odds.”

In 2015, a few years after shifting to Bangalore, Nalini founded Hasiru Dala, an NGO fighting for the rights of waste pickers or “silent environmentalists” as she calls them.

Small Change: Describe your epiphany or the Eureka moment that led you to start Hasiru Dala.

Nalini Shekhar: I have always been interested in working with waste pickers. When I moved to  Bangalore in 2010, there was a lot of talk about strengthening the waste collection system in the city by the municipality. But nobody was talking about the contribution made by waste pickers. There weren’t talking about them at all. There can’t be talks about waste without waste pickers because the formal sector is only one part of the waste collection. There is a huge informal sector too which is often ignored. I really felt like their voices weren’t being heard and that’s why I decided to start Hasiru Dala.

S: What has been the most uplifting part of the journey?

N: When you see waste pickers talking about environmental concerns, that’s a different feeling. Not only do they understand it, but they also talk about their role in environmental protection. We see how they are able to talk to local government and citizens about their work. All of us can talk about the environment because of our education but these people have faced the challenges so when they talk, it’s more in-depth.

S: Is there a simple way each one of us can help better lives of waste pickers? 

N: The simplest way is to acknowledge them. To see them for who they are and appreciate them. Just smile and tell them you are doing a great job. That’s very important.

When we started working with waste pickers we realised that they saw themselves through the labels given to them by society: they are Dalits, they are unclean because they work with waste and they are Untouchables. But once we explained the economic contribution they are making to the city and the things they are doing to mitigate climate change, they really understood their work and the role they are playing.

Of course, they are doing it for their livelihoods but it’s also having a positive impact on the environment. Once they understood that, we saw them being proud of their work and we see a huge change in attitudes of waste pickers about themselves.

S: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?

N: First would be Mahatma Gandhi. I really admire his concept of non-cooperation and fearlessness. Second, Savitribai Phule.  She is the one who fought for women’s rights and really fought for upliftment of girls’ education. And finally, B.R. Ambedkar because I personally love his idea that ‘I can compete with the rest of the world’. He spoke in English, wore clothes like them and still represented where he came from.

Wait, now I realise it’s probably not a good idea to invite Gandhi and Ambedkar to the same dinner, so maybe I’ll call them on different days!

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