As New Delhi Plant Gears Up to Turn Rubbish into Energy, Community Organizer is Turning Ragpickers into Artisans

Suresh Khanduri, an environmental consultant to the World Bank, roves India facilitating the creation of sustainable, environmentally friendly employment opportunities. In a slum community whose longtime ragpickers are losing access to a massive dumpsite, he has facilitated the establishment of a vocational training center where more than 65 women are making gift items and affordable sanitary napkins. Now focused on developing a waste-sorting project that will employ men of the community, Khanduri aims to use lessons learned in New Delhi in spearheading similar projects in other Indian states.

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As New Delhi Plant Gears Up to Turn Rubbish into Energy, Community Organizer is Turning Ragpickers into Artisans

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NEW DELHI, INDIA – When Suresh Khanduri enters the Ghazipur slum, people follow.

Khanduri, 47, walks empty-handed but carries immense hopes. With a pat here and a handshake there, he transmits those hopes to the ragpickers who have long eked out a living at a landfill on the outskirts of New Delhi, India’s capital.

He caringly touches women’s shoulders and cajoles them into sending their daughters to work at the Gulmeher training center, a facility that he and his local partners established adjacent to the slum. There, girls and women learn vocational skills, including crafting corporate gifts from recycled paper and dried flowers, manufacturing sanitary napkins and doing office work.

Men chase him with their concerns. Women rush to him for a friendly chat. Children flock around him to relish his affection and perpetual smile.

“Why don’t you come for work?” Khanduri asks girls, playfully tugging their braids.

Khanduri, a native of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, is a community organizer. He travels around India setting up sustainable, environmentally friendly livelihood initiatives in low-income communities.

“If I sit at one place, I will become a trader,” he says. “I want to set up projects without any possessions and move on.”

Khanduri has come to New Delhi to help ragpickers find new sources of income before their traditional livelihood ends.

In late June 2015, a waste-to-energy plant will start up at the Ghazipur landfill, ending access to the rubbish heaps from which slum dwellers salvage salable materials. Khanduri has come to help ragpickers learn skills that will enable them to earn their livelihoods in new ways.

“The first challenge is to turn ragpickers into artisans,” Khanduri says.

The second challenge is to help working people enhance their employability by expanding their skill sets, he says.

Khanduri has facilitated nearly 20 environmentally friendly livelihood initiatives for local governments and private companies in various Indian states.

In New Delhi, he encourages girls and women from the Ghazipur slum to prepare for the end of the ragpicking era at the landfill by learning new skills at the Gulmeher training center. He consistently innovates to expand and evolve the project.

Fabindia, a fashion store chain that sells handcrafted clothing and home décor, has expressed interest in ordering gift boxes.

Khanduri is also negotiating a deal with the East Delhi Municipal Corp., a government agency responsible for solid waste management, to employ men of the slum.

In India, the unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, according to the Fourth Annual Employment and Unemployment Survey Report published by the Ministry of Labor and Employment. Nearly 75 percent of men participate in the labor force, compared with only 26 percent of women.

Over 350 families live in the Ghazipur slum. For years their livelihood has depended on what salable items their ragpickers can salvage from the nearby landfill, which takes in 2,400 metric tons (2,645 short tons) of garbage from Delhi every day, according to the East Delhi Municipal Corp. But once the energy plant goes into operation, ragpickers will no longer be permitted to enter the dumpsite.

In preparation for that shift, Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited, the private company that will run the plant with the East Delhi Municipal Corp., launched Gulmeher – with Khanduri’s expertise – in May 2013. About 65 women have joined the center.

As the director of the nonprofit Institute for Development Support in Uttarakhand, Khanduri has completed at least 12 similar projects in low-income communities in Uttarakhand and eight in other Indian states.

While Khanduri receives an honorarium from the institute, he earns his living primarily as an environmental consultant to the World Bank.

Khanduri and his team engage communities in the design of environmentally friendly projects in tourism, groundwater recharge, waste recycling, forestry and agriculture. They mobilize people to work, build their employment capacities, and eventually hand projects over to communities to ensure their sustainability.

Local governments, corporations and other organizations often call on Khanduri to execute effective community development projects.

Infrastructure Leasing originally tried to train ragpickers to work in other industries, but they didn’t show interest, says a company official who, lacking authorization to speak on the record, requested anonymity.

The company asked various organizations to run a social project to give ragpickers a new livelihood but found them profit-oriented. Finally, it summoned Khanduri.

“Khanduri’s interest in the social uplift of people was evident,” the official says. “He was keen to work with communities. He was excellent in mobilization, and connected well with the community.”

The project was conceived in brainstorming sessions Khanduri conducted with ragpickers, Infrastructure Leasing and other stakeholders. Recognizing that ragpickers want to stay close to their families and women want to bring their children to work, Khanduri decided that creating jobs near the slum was key.

Khanduri focused on women first because mothers, being deeply concerned with the welfare and prospects of their children, are easier to mobilize, he says. He had already launched successful paper projects in communities in Uttarakhand.

Khanduri aims to motivate as many women as possible to train at Gulmeher. He ensures that participants learn a variety of jobs, boosting their employability.

The first woman Khanduri recruited was Badru Nisha, now 45.

“Khanduri Sir told me to take this company as mine and bring more people,” Badru Nisha says.

Convinced she couldn’t get a job without an education, she had never worked before.

Badru Nisha brings discarded flowers from the local wholesale market to Gulmeher – which means “blessings of flowers” in Hindi – dries them and hands them off to other workers who use them to decorate gift items. She also operates the cotton-pressing machine in the sanitary napkin unit.

Today, a confident Badru Nisha earns 6,000 rupees ($94) a month. In two years, she saved 70,000 rupees ($1,100) and built a house for her relatives back in Bihar state.

Before coming to Gulmeher, Badru Nisha and her co-workers used to climb the fetid mounds of trash in the Ghazipur landfill, picking through waste in the sweltering heat for what little they earned selling their finds to scrap dealers. Today, they use their nimble fingers to make clean products.

Sitara Khatun, 16, is grateful to have found a way down from the trash heaps.

“Had I not listened to Khanduri Sir, I would still be living that filthy life,” she says.

Sitara Khatun and her younger sister Tara both work in Gulmeher. With their earnings, they are able to support their family, pay for their studies and send their youngest sister to school. The girls have lived with their grandparents since their mother died and their father left them.

Gulmeher workers cut dried flower petals in various shapes and sizes and paste the bits on calendars, bags and other merchandise by designer Vidwata Singh.

Singh says she felt compelled to apply her training – she has a master’s degree from the well-known National Institute of Fashion Technology – at Gulmeher.

“These people were living an unorganized life, whereas this work requires a lot of concentration,” Singh says. “Khanduri developed confidence in them and stood like a pillar of foundation.”

Khanduri is also committed to sustainability and the environment.

In February 2014, Khanduri led the conversion of the community organization into a private company, Gulmeher Green Producer Co. Ltd., that now sells products made at the center. Infrastructure Leasing and its sister companies buy all the gift items.

Fabindia, the store chain that is considering placing Gulmeher’s first commercial order, became aware of Gulmeher’s products when a former employee received one of its gifts after going to work for Infrastructure Leasing. The store sent Gulmeher sample gift boxes that workers replicated to the store’s satisfaction.

Gulmeher plans to acquire a machine to recycle paper for use in gift-making. Under a system Khanduri facilitated, Infrastructure Leasing and its sister companies send their discarded paper to Gulmeher for recycling, saving Gulmeher on stationery costs.

To expand Gulmeher’s employment offerings, Khanduri enlisted a Mumbai-based organization, Aakar Innovations, to set up a sanitary napkin unit in mid-2014. The operation produces inexpensive napkins that low-income women can afford.

Aakar Innovations trained the Gulmeher workers and buys the napkins they produce. Khanduri is seeking more buyers for the sanitary napkins.

Khanduri finds his motivation in people and nature.

“Water, forest, land, animals and humans are the base of everything,” Khanduri says. “We can benefit and evolve if we are able to develop these.”

Khanduri is humbled by the praise he receives from project stakeholders. He attributes Gulmeher’s success to the workers.

“I try to explore the capacities of local populations and resources available to them and then, accordingly, create programs,” he says.

Gulmeher’s workers are inherently talented, he says. All they need are awareness of their capabilities and a bit of training, he says. To help build their self-confidence, Khanduri spends time with community members, inquiring about their fears and aspirations.

He has built a nationwide reputation as a community organizer.

Geeta Kandpal, a capacity-building specialist on the faculty of the Center for Good Governance, says he regularly taps Khanduri’s expertise.

“We frequently call him as he is an expert in mobilizing communities in development projects,” Kandpal says in a phone interview from Uttarakhand state.

The Center for Good Governance operates under the Uttarakhand Academy of Administration, which trains governmental officers.

Khanduri does not see himself that way.

“I am not an expert,” he says humbly. “I am a social worker and a facilitator. I had gone to university as a closed box and came out as a closed one, but I learned the real-life skills working with communities.”

Khanduri spends fewer than 10 days a month in Uttarakhand, where his wife and two sons live, he says.

“But I don’t miss them, as I get unconditional love from people in communities anywhere I go,” he says.

The affection Khanduri offers in return is key to his ability to motivate.

“He talks lovingly in a sweet voice that attracts people,” says Kasim Ali, the informal leader of the Ghazipur ragpicker community and grandfather of Sitara.

Sheikh Rehmatullah, a 15-year slum resident who brought electricity to the shacks, says Khanduri and his team have aided the community’s development.

“When they got our defunct community toilets functional, we started believing in them,” he says.

Still, there is a lot of work to be done in the slum, he says.

“He comes and assures many things, such as getting blocked sewage cleared, but we still have many problems in the slum, like water-logging or drinking water,” Sheikh Rehmatullah says critically.

Khanduri has asked residents to form a committee so that it can address problems methodically, Sheikh Rehmatullah says.

The criticism does not deter Khanduri, who acknowledges that he cannot please everyone in a community.

Khanduri is working on a plan to mobilize the slum’s men to collect garbage from about 1,000 Delhi Development Authority flats in the area. The men would then separate the garbage for recycling and composting.

The plan would create more jobs while managing solid waste in an environmentally friendly way, Khanduri says. He is negotiating with the East Delhi Municipal Corp., which handles garbage from the flats.

Khanduri also dreams of engaging at least 2,500 female ragpickers from adjacent communities in income-generating activities. Before the Gulmeher project began, Khanduri’s organization conducted a skills-mapping assessment of the Ghazipur area and found that many women are skilled at chair-weaving, Zardozi embroidery – known for its gold thread – and cooking.

“They only need professional training, which we will find ways to organize,” Khanduri says.

Khanduri hopes to use lessons learned at Gulmeher in achieving that dream.

“If I succeed in converting ragpickers into artisans who make corporate gifts, I will be able to replicate a similar model in other projects at other places,” he says.

He has also started exploring the use of similar models in other states. He is talking to ragpickers in Nagaland and Sikkim states and the fishing communities of Goa state to discover their capacities and interests and develop alternative livelihood options.

Sitara Khatun does not have a last name. Khatun is a suffix used for unmarried girls and women in some Muslim communities in India. Badru Nisha and Sheikh Rehmatullah, like many people in their community, do not have last names.

Alka Pande, GPJ, translated some interviews from Hindi.