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Car-Centric Transport Policy Hurts India’s Informal Sector

60 Kilos from CHINTAN on Vimeo.

In a recent post here on thecityfix.com, Sudhir Gota documented the plight of ‘Transport Challenged People’ in Bangalore, India. In his piece, Sudhir explains how Indian transportation policy’s often myopic focus on car infrastructure can reduce the mobility (and thus the quality of life) of those unable to afford automobiles themselves.

Another example of the link between social justice and transport policy is the plight of Delhi’s ‘wastepickers’ – informal sector trash collectors that make their living collecting and sorting garbage. According to Bharati Chaturvedi, Director of Chintan, a community group that advocates for wastepicker rights, new transport policies in Delhi and other Indian cities have often favored the transportation needs of private automobile owners over those of the wastepickers.

While often unseen or overlooked, 1 out of every 100 Delhi residents earns a livelihood as a wastepicker. As a group, these informal garbage men and women collect over half of the city’s waste. But in a rapidly modernizing India, the wastepickers’ way of life is under constant threat. The video above highlights how wastepickers face daily harassment by the police and marginalization by the government, which has recently adopted new rules that favor private trash collection companies.

While film does not explicitly highlight it, transportation policy is another arena in which wastepicker rights are not being respected. Mobility is essential for these workers, who typically use cycle rickshaws to move from house to house and to haul their huge bags of garbage, which can exceed 60 kilos (approximately 130 lbs). But as private cars have begun to dominate Indian roads, the government has decided to ban bicycles and cycle rickshaws from many city streets. Ostensibly, these measures are designed to improve traffic flow, but they can be a death sentence for the wastepicker business model: without this affordable form of transportation, their ability to collect enough trash to make ends meet becomes even more difficult. According to Bharati, wastepickers caught using their cycle rickshaws in restricted areas can have their rides confiscated. The rickshaws are then cut in half, in order to permanently take them off the road!

Learn more about the ban on cycle rickshaws and efforts to reverse it.

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  • While politics and caste sociey will certainly play a role, the lack of an alternative approach to transport planning than what is found in the West, is also part of the problem. In the West, transport planning by-and-large means solving congestion. With this as a starting point, removing bicycles and rickshaws is an obvious solution.

    At the moment, I am developing such an alternative approach to transport planning, based on principles of justice. Some preliminary ideas can be found at http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/pubs/bpj/pdf/19-1-Martens.pdf

    While a small contribution to change, a comprehensive theory of transport planning based on principles of justice is necessary, if public authorities will ever adopt another approach.

  • Joe Foti

    I guess i will raise a few more questions than I can answer:
    – Is there any chance that there might be dedicated lanes (like separated bike lanes) in some major corridors?
    – How has the development of the subway in Delhi impacted this group, or other informal sectors?
    – Mumbai has banned auto rickshaws and bicycle rickshaws downtown. Has this had the same effect on wastepickers as elsewhere? Compared to Delhi, the amount of traffic and noise in Mumbai seems tame. Might the trains compensate for some of the wastepickers’ problems as they have in other sectors, such as the dhabawallas (food servers) who depend heavily on public transport to do business?

  • Ari Tamat

    Can an upper-caste-dominated society like India really be expected to support pro-poor urban policies? Chintan makes a very good case for inclusion and empowerment of the informal wastepicker sector, but one suspects that the political establishment would not allow it.