NINETEEN years ago, Bharati Chaturvedi quit her well-paying job and decided to look for an opportunity to work on urban environmental issues. After finding none to her satisfaction, Bharati founded Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group to work on waste management and air pollution. What started with only her as a volunteer has now turned into one of the nation’s well-known organisations in the sector. Delhi-based Chintan has played a vital role in understanding waste as a resource, and the importance of collaborating with waste pickers and uplifting their lives.

In our conversation with her, Bharati talks about her journey, the plight of rag pickers and the underserved communities during the pandemic, Chintan’s relief efforts and much more.

Give: What led to the idea of using waste as a tool to fight poverty and child labour?

Bharati Chaturvedi: Before Chintan started, I was curious about the life of rag pickers who move around the city with sacks on their backs. I spent a year tracking them and their networks and realised that these people who give us free environmental services live extremely marginalised lives lacking access to social security, housing, nutrition, education, human rights, etc.

Bharati Chaturvedi (Chintan) 1

I initially wanted to start an NGO to do research and policy work on waste pickers, but our focus became environmental justice in urban areas with waste pickers and waste recyclers. Our idea is that recycling should not be based on exploitation and child labour, but by providing them green jobs. How to make sure that these waste pickers were making enough money was on top of my mind.

To pick up waste they have to sometimes pay the municipal authorities, they often get injured during waste-picking and there is also the problem of child labour. So with Chintan, I removed these obstacles and made their life better while providing equitable, sustainable growth for everyone.

Give: Dealing with medical waste has always been an issue. The problem may have increased because of COVID-19. How are you educating the waste-picker community about it?

BC: I would say that the people who need education are those generating waste. We have, of course, talked to waste pickers about refusing healthcare waste, avoiding COVID homes, and the importance of segregation of waste.

We have shared fliers with residents and spoken to many of them.  Waste pickers are well-informed but they are also poor, so they are stuck in a hard place if those responsible don’t do their bit.

Give: Lockdown meant that there was a loss of livelihood for many communities. What did Chintan do to bring relief to people who work with you?

BC: In summary, we gave kits that included food/ration supplies, sanitary napkins, soap, shampoo, etc., to over 25,000 persons. These kits would last them for a month. We did this through local leadership. We repeated this a few times, then focussed only on about 2,000 children, mostly girls, for nutrition, as these are most vulnerable. We also provided internet to kids who lacked access to it for attending online classes.

One of the unusual things we did was around children’s mental health. Working with a volunteer who specialises in the field, we combated the challenges that emerged from a survey: loneliness, anxiety, boredom and a fear of the future. Two steps were taken: first, 110 children worked with 10 volunteers to learn to use their cellphones and create a photo exhibition. Second, we gave each household a kit with age-appropriate items like skipping ropes, colouring books, plasticine, paints, carrom boards, board games, etc., to keep them occupied creatively. Many of the families could stay indoors, thanks to our intervention.

Bharati Chaturvedi (Chintan) 4

Of course, we also gave limited cash transfers. We were overwhelmed to learn how the cash was used. People used it to cure their children of ailments, some used them to buy milk for their kids after weeks, and others – mostly widows – used it to assert themselves in their families by supplying food.

Give: As part of COVID-19 relief, did you reach out to communities beyond the people you work with?

BC: Yes, we worked with migrant workers. We did two things: We went to the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, to the Anand Vihar railway station and set up a system to register tickets to migrant workers and help many to go back to shelters instead of walking home. We also gave them all a kit comprising some longer-lasting food, electrolytes and footwear, as many did not have any. We helped almost 10,000 such migrant workers.

We also ran a campaign to encourage people to buy fruits and vegetables from locals as many workers, masons, etc., had turned to sell vegetables etc to make ends meet. The campaign was predominantly through WhatsApp.  It was widely used by others and connected many new vendors.

Give: What is your oldest and fondest memory of being in nature?

BC: I grew up in Delhi and one of my earliest stories was my father used to take me out for walks in the wilderness. On one such long walk during winter,  we saw a patch of land full of trees. The dull grey winter morning played a perfect background where I witnessed hundreds of baya weaver nests hanging from the trees like lanterns. It was a beautiful sight and one of the most magical moments ever.

We made it our frequent bird-watching spot, and my father would call out the names of all the colourful birds. Later, this inspired me to make my home in New Delhi a sanctuary for all manner of creatures. We have planted trees wherever we could, and care for lost dogs and ailing birds. I am always awestruck by the magnificence of the natural world.

Give: For someone who loves to travel, what are the first three places you would like to visit when it gets safe, and why?

BC: I’m looking forward to travelling to the Deccan – to Golconda, Gol Gumbaz, etc… I admire the architecture and would love to take combined tours to places that have stunning architecture and multiple ecologies. Some more on my list include the Banni Grassland Reserve in Gujarat and Punjab in winter for birdwatching.

Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan

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