Voices & Faces

Chaya Sontakke

Secure in times of insecurity or always on the fringe?

“Over the last 15 years I have traversed the distance between the parched fields where I worked as an agricultural wage labourer to the chrome and glass buildings of Infosys Technologies ” says 32 year old Chaya Manik Sontakke with a bashful smile and sparkling eyes. Widowed when she was only 20 years old with three young children to care for Chaya was introduced to waste picking by her sisters in law. There were few options available. Her husband had been a daily wage labourer. She had barely been to school having completed only std. I.

Operating as a free roaming scavenger she joined the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat when she heard about it from her relatives. “I participated in every activity” she says, “I sold my collected scrap at Kashtachi Kamai ; saved money in the credit cooperative; and sent my children to school. She was there when the opportunity to collect recyclable waste from Infosys Technologies presented itself nine years ago. At Infosys her daily earnings shot up to almost Rs.500 daily. Recognising that the benefits should be shared with her colleagues, she was instrumental in inducting more waste pickers into the group so that it swelled from 4 to 14 keeping pace with the company’s expansion. The earnings were shared equally among those in the group despite the fact that Chaya evolved into the leader, the one who played shepherd to keep the flock together. The group also provided a livelihood to the mini truck driver, himself an informal worker, who transported their scrap to Kashtachi Kamai.

“Life as a waste picker has never been luxurious” according to Chaya who continues “but the Infosys work did transform my workday and bring in a lot of stability. We ate at the company canteen and had regular hours. Then at Kashtachi Kamai where I sold the scrap I got 10-12 per cent of my annual earnings in the profit distribution. I saved regularly in the credit coop and took a loan of Rs.40000 to buy a small plot of land on which I constructed a little two room house. My children are now in high school because at KKPKP we insist that children should pursue their education. Of course I am still a working class person, although I may have a few assets and my lifestyle has improved, it’s not like I mint money and have moved up in life.”

Life seemed to be doing exceptionally well for Chaya until a few months ago when the recession hit. “What did this recession mean to me?” says Chaya.........”Well the quantity of scrap exiting Infosys decreased dramatically. I went to ask them what the matter was, to check whether there were any leaks and others were selling it. I found out that the company had used to provide a newspaper to every employee and reduced it to one for many. After all we get what they buy and throw so if they buy less we get less. So now the quantity of scrap has halved as have our earnings and our work times have also reduced by a couple of hours.” She continues, The scrap prices also dropped five six months ago and everyone was saying “mandi mandi” but it didn’t stay that way for long and have been stable again for many months now.

“What are the changes I have had to make in my life after my earnings halved?” Chaya asks quizzically. “Well, the costs have not gone down. The mini truck costs as much and our group is of the same size so we earn less than we used to and the cost of essential commodities have gone up. We are regular meat eaters but now we don’t buy meat and fish as often. The usual fare has changed to cereals and vegetables. I am not as liberal as I used to be with spending for my children’s education. Sometimes they have to pester me for a week before I get them a note book or a new pen. My eldest Vikas is 17 and in class VII and relatively indifferent to school. Every so often he drops out but I nag him into going back. The girls are more committed, Mohini is 14 and in class X while Rohini is 12 and in class VIII. I stay clear of the doctor because that’s a sure overspend. Let’s say I get by, life is not too bad, but I have seen better, and there may be worse to come. Thankfully I have my own house!