Voices & Faces

Sunanda Kalunkhe

Sunandabai Kalunke spends most of her day sorting through the waste generated by over a hundred households allocated to her by SWACH, a cooperative of waste pickers. Paper, plastic, bottles, fruit and vegetable peels, and food – lots and lots of leftover food. There may have been a time when a waste picker and her children may have been tempted to eat these scraps. But for Sunandabai, working with a cooperative has brought a certain dignity and financial security, and she is not tempted. But her heart aches to see large sections of pizza, chapattis, bread, rice, sometimes even fish or chicken, go waste.

So she does not let it go waste. She collects it all in a bag, and takes it to a piece of open ground near her house in Pune. And there she distributes it to a hungry flock of crows. Well, it started with the crows, five years ago. By some unknown grapevine, the news spread, and sparrows began to join in. Then came mynas, and dogs. Squirrels followed soon after. Now there is a menagerie of around 200 birds and animals that eagerly waits for Sunandabai every morning. And she is always there, with her bagfuls of leftovers.

On Sundays, Sunandabai does not go on her waste-picking round, and there are no leftovers. But the menagerie knows no Sunday, and the crows come to her door, cawing raucously for their breakfast. So Sunandabai has taken to keeping some food ready for Sunday. If she can't make the waste food last, she makes fresh chapattis!

What drives this woman, living at the brink of a subsistence existence, working at a back-breaking and filthy occupation, to spare time and effort for the birds?

"Their souls will be satisfied, their blessings will be with me, that is enough," she says smiling. The waste-pickers play a crucial role in the preservation of the environment by recycling waste. Sunandabai adds another, rather spiritual dimension to this role.