Early in the morning, after cleaning the ground, at the threshold of the entrance to their homes, women lay kollam patterns on the earth with rice and lime. These intricate geometries are an everyday reminder of beauty inviting abundance and prosperity. But the purpose of kollam is more than decoration: traditionally, laying rice and lime at the entrance of the home was an offering- to feed insects and mites, so they would not need to enter the house. Kollam- offering, daily act of regeneration, reminder of the relationships and cycles that sustain- life.

Women who work in Bangalore’s waste management sector chose kollam as the symbol to celebrate the work they do everyday to regenerate the city- urban alchemists, they tend to our streets, giving new life to things most people consider wasted. And yet, they are rarely treated with dignity, nor recognized for the absolutely essential work they do. 

In Bangalore, Fearless Collective joined Hasiru Dala and women who work in both informal and formal waste management to create a public monument to women waste workers.

Encircled in kollam, they shared stories of their emotional and ecological realities- how they experience ecosystems and their place within them- and traced the intersections between Essential Life, Labour, and Environments | Disposable Plastics and Disposable Incomes | Dignity and Labour | Consumption and Waste | Public Space, Self Representation, Narrative, and Power

As their stories unfolded, the image emerged: 

Jayabai, an informal waste picker, gathers things most people consider wasted and gives them new life. She embraces Pourikarmika, Valli, who turns organic matter of all kinds back into earth. Together, they affirm their vision for a future in which they will receive as much from the city as they give to it.

‘We are for you, you are for us’

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fear of contamination framed single-use plastic as a seal of ‘protection,’ while leaving out of the picture where it goes and who handles it after it is disposed of. 

Across India, the majority of plastic waste is sorted and recycled by informal sector Waste Pickers. The workers who segregate waste play an essential role in sustaining our urban ecologies, and yet, they are often treated like disposable lives. 

At the beginning of the lockdowns, officials across the country gathered in emergency meetings to discuss what (and who) is considered essential. While the value of workers was being debated behind closed doors, those who do the labour under discussion were never asked what they consider essential, making visible a power dynamic that runs throughout our systems, one that is told to us, rather than determined by us. 

In Bangalore, Waste Pickers who are responsible for the city’s recycling were not recognized as ‘essential,’ resulting in the loss of their livelihoods and tonnes of plastic waste they would have segregated and recycled being dumped into landfills or burned.In this context, Fearless partnered with Hasiru Dala, a social impact organization focused on justice for Waste Pickers, to reclaim narratives around what is essential and to whom, and create a public monument affirming the absolutely essential role women Waste Pickers and Pourikarmikas (formal sector waste workers) play in regenerating our cities and mitigating climate change.

In a large room, in the heart of the city, we gathered together with a group of formal and informal waste workers. We sat around a green canvas with an intricate kollam pattern hand painted in it’s centre – in white and gold. The small of jasmine flowers, strung into the womens’ hair and carpeting the floor where we sat, hung heavy in the air. 

We started our workshop with the question: 

What do you give the city? What does the city give you?

Women shared stories of their daily labour and how much they give to the city, keeping it clean, reducing waste, doing the work that most other people don’t want to do. In turn, what the city gives them, is a livelihood, the opportunity to educate their children, a sense of liberation – giving them choices they wouldn’t have otherwise had. On the other hand, some shared stories of being treated with disrespect, disregard, and a lack of recognition. 

And so, in the first part of our Ritual, each woman took a piece of paper in her hands, crushed it, and threw it aside as she answered the question: 

What do you want to dispose of?

I want to dispose of: 

Disrespect 

The hardships of generations that I’ve inherited, that I carry

Domestic Violence 

Gender Inequality 

Discriminations, all of them. 

The arrogance of the rich

Wealth, Poverty

Corruption.

My daughter’s pain- she will not have to endure what we have endured (it’s all for her).