Being the Change She Wished to See: Nalini Shekar’s Impactful Work across Two Countries

 

Few women (or men) in India can own the title of ‘Change Maker’ like Nalini Shekar does. You could call her an activist or an entrepreneur (she has co-founded an NGO and a social enterprise), but no title could do justice to the impact Nalini has had upon thousands of people in India and the US.

In her hometown, Bengaluru, Nalini has brought about a revolution in the living standards of waste pickers through Hasiru Dala, the NGO she founded in 2013. Long before that, in the US, Nalini’s work highlighted immigrant issues and violence against women. In fact, her work there won her several accolades, including Certificate of Honour from then-Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Nalini’s story begins closer home, in Pune, where she did something unthinkable at the time: bringing Dalits, called by the derogatory term ‘untouchables’, into an organised workforce in the 1990s.

Success in Pune

Born and raised in Bengaluru, Nalini did her master’s in Child Development before moving to Pune after her wedding. Born into a family of freedom fighters and influenced by the teachings of Gandhi and Ambedkar, Nalini wanted to do something beyond a routine 9-to-5 job. In 1993, while working at the adult education department of SNDT university in Pune, Nalini’s life took a new turn.

 “I didn't believe in teaching ABC to adults. So I started working with children. There were a lot of child labourers in waste picking at the time. We went to their homes and said, ‘if you had a better opportunity to work, will you really let your children go to school’,” she says. Nalini wanted to work with these Dalit communities and change society’s attitude towards them and provide them with access to social security.

“There are many things that they did which I did too, because I wanted to understand exactly what they go through. They got onto the train without paying tickets; we got onto the train with them,” she recollects.

Nalini joined hands with her friends Poornima Chikarmane and Lakshmi Narayan to form a union: Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), which was the first trade union of waste pickers. Within a month, it had 1,100 people. “It was important to form a union and say that we are workers and we need our rights,” Nalini adds.  Once they were organised, the union got identify cards for their members thereby giving them legitimacy.

To change their working conditions, they sought out residential areas of rich people who use lot of disposable plastic. “We told the residents there that if they can separate the waste, we can collect it from their homes. We didn't want a waste picker going into the dump and putting their hands into it.” This was in 1994, six years before law made it mandatory to segregate dry waste and wet waste.

The American Dream

Nalini moved to the US in 1997, when her husband Shekar Prabhakar got a job in California. Since she had to struggle to get work permit, Nalini started volunteering with Mythri, a South Asian women’s support group. “Just three or four months after reaching the US, I got involved with the FBI to work with public prosecutors and training the judges on cultural sensitivity,” she recounts.

Nalini was passionate about working for labourers. In the US too, she has worked with the labourers who were brought into the country illegally and denied of their rights.

Once Nalini got the work permit, she started working with another local group, Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, while continuing to volunteer at Mythri. In her 10 years in the US, she has worked with thousands of victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, drawing upon her experience of working with child sexual trafficking in Mumbai’s red-light area.

Nalini also learnt how to build a professional organisation from her US experience. “In the US, if you want to work with survivors of domestic violence, for example, you have to go through a 20-hour certification course offered by the state and then you have to renew it repeatedly. They teach you how to keep things about a victim/survivor confidential even though you would want to talk to someone about particularly bad cases. Also, I used to manage a team of around hundred people. So I picked up how to keep your boundaries as a colleague and how to become closer as a friend,” she explains.

The Power of an Identity Card

When Nalini and her husband returned to India and settled down in Bengaluru, Nalini took on the cause of waste pickers.

 “In Pune, we had a great space to integrate waste pickers into solid waste management. But in Bengaluru, contracts were already in place; there was no scope for door-to-door collections by waste pickers. The contractors threatened me, trying to stop me, but even government officials and ministers liked our work because we were bringing transparency to people at the grassroots. So, we went ahead,” she recalls. 

In Bengaluru, Hasiru Dala represented waste pickers’ issues in the court and asked for occupational identity cards for them. “The waste pickers were often harassed if there is a theft, because cops would round them up and empty out their bags. So we wanted an ID card that says they are allowed to pick up waste from within BBMP limits.”

Hasiru Dala showed BBMP the economic contribution of waste pickers: 1050 tonnes of waste is picked up by 15,000 waste pickers in the city, saving the BBMP Rs 84 crore just in collection and transportation. Moreover, they were picking up 600 tonnes of recyclable material every day. In 2011, the organisation won them the occupation ID card with the logo of the city and signature of the Commissioner – just like the city Mayor’s ID card would have (In 2016 it became a law in India that every city has to give identity cards to waste pickers).

The benefits included decreased police harassment and change for the community in Bengaluru. Today, more than 10,000 hold the ID.

Growing Hasiru Dala

With rapid urbanisation and over population leading to hike in consumption, metro cities are all finding waste management a real problem.

Hasiru Dala has tied up with Bengaluru-based Jain University for a certification course in waste management for waste pickers and scrap dealers. In Bengaluru, the organisation also started providing waste management services to houses and apartments about six years ago.

Nalini recollects, “Responsible waste management costs money.  We asked for Rs 40 per household for collection of waste, but most customers said it’s too expensive. So we said, ‘give us Rs 20 per household, and we'll weigh your wet waste and dry waste, and pay accordingly’. Then we started getting Rs 45 instead of Rs 40. In no time, we were providing this service to 40 apartments just by word of mouth.”

As they grew, the organisation needed to bring in more operational efficiency, which demands more investment. So Nalini and her husband Shekar co-founded Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI), a social enterprise that now serves more than 240 apartment complexes and corporates.

“Initially, the waste picker-turned-entrepreneurs had to ask friends and family for a loan of even Rs 20,000. But today people call them to give loans, because there is consistency of payment,” Nalini claimss. In 2019, HDI expanded to five more cities.

Hasiru Dala’s vision is that livelihood and social security should go hand in hand: if you improve the livelihood of waste pickers, you should also ensure they know how to use the bank. So the organisation looks at social security, and HDI looks at the livelihood aspect through segregated waste management services. “But if the client doesn't segregate, we don't mind saying goodbye, because we feel segregation is not the role of the waste picker but of the producer,” Nalini adds.

HDI also conducts waste management at events to ensure nothing goes to landfills. These events range from Bengaluru’s music festival, Echoes of Earth, to marathons of 50,000 people. “We have done weddings of 50 people and of 18,000 people too. We work with the event managers to look at what kind of material can be used that can be recycled. And now the local government has come up with regulations on how an event should be managed based on our experiences,” Nalini says.

Additionally, HDI collaborates with personal care brand The Body Shop for ‘Fair Trade Plastics Recycling Initiative.’ Through this partnership, the company’s fully recycled packaging will use 15 percent from PET plastic bottle waste sourced by HDI. Hasiru Dala also collaborates with Netherlands-based social enterprise SweepSmart, which offers professional waste solutions based on European waste management principles tailored for low-income countries.

Championing women 

Gender equality is another passion for Nalini. “It is not about only women standing up for the rights of women; men can also stand up for the rights of the women. I consider myself as feminist as I stand for the rights of women,” she adds.

To this end, Nalini has ensured that Hasiru Dala provides a safe space for women to enhance their skills. Today, of the 33 collection centres, 14 are run by women. “Instead of comparing the men and women’s work, we understand the backgrounds these women are coming from. That is the only thing you need to do; they will do the rest themselves,” says Nalini, adding that women leaders are more compassionate than men. “Co-creating at work is harder for men; collaborative efforts happen with women more easily.”

Her advice to ambitious women is to consistently chase their dreams. “There are a lot of challenges that come, but if you keep your aim rest will follow. Balancing relationships can be a challenge, because you have to work at it every day. But I do think that women can have it all. They have to decide what is ‘all,’” she says. Her mantra is prioritising what matters to her. She claims that she has been able to compartmentalise, and does not think of home when she is at work. “Likewise, if I am on a holiday, I don’t think of work,” Nalini adds.

After having achieved so much, however, Nalini has no plans for relaxing. She is already busy with research for making policy changes. Despite all the achievements, she is not one to rest on laurels. “ I have a long way to go,” she laughs.


Producer: Urmi Chatterjee

Cinematographer: Rukmanda Raja

Text Editor: Evelyn Ratnakumar