Wander This World - "A School in the Middle of Nowhere"


Last Friday I took a drive an hour outside of New Delhi to visit a factory.

It is not just any factory.  It’s a non-profit organization that employs and provides comprehensive services and education to former ragpickers who earn a living wage making beautiful handbags and home goods out of the very same plastic bags and industrial waste they once scavenged through to survive.

People who earn their living picking through waste are not often equipped with the social or job skills necessary to land a factory job.  Imagine trying to work in an office if you didn’t know how to tell time with a clock, use a public restroom or turn on a light switch.  Even if you were capable of learning how to do all of these things, its doubtful that any shift supervisor would keep you around long enough to figure out how.  That’s where Conserve (website will be getting an overhaul soon) comes in, teaching, training and employing people to make beautiful things out of what was once trash.

Though the employing-formerly-disenfranchised-populations-to-create-upcycled-goods-for-sale is not particularly new, it’s rare to see it done as well or on as large a scale as it is at Conserve.  There are no words that can do justice to the factory or the larger organization, but I’ve rarely let such a thing stop me from trying to find them anyway.  Indeed, its that very default of mine that ties me to the good people at Conserve right now.

I should make it clear right now that I am not an expert.  I have no first-hand experience working with such marginalized populations as ragpickers in India.  I am serving merely as an observer, volunteering some time to help get some web content together for an organization that’s too busy trying to do good things to bother much with details like a nice 1-pager.  I should also note that I am not fully versed enough in all of Conserve’s methodology and programs to feel comfortable playing the role of an unabashed zealot yet.

But as I am drafting narrative ideas and revisiting photos from last week, there are a few thoughts percolating in my head that will likely never make it into any marketing materials–at least not any that most people would want to read, so I’m sharing them here instead and urging my readers to continue checking out the Conserve website for increasingly updated information and content over the next few months.

While out at the factory, we took a drive down a pothole stricken, unpaved road to visit a school that Conserve built in the middle of a ragpickers’ settlement, a place most people would call a slum.  As the car bounced up and down over the rough road, I took  a few notes which I’ve since fleshed out a bit and reproduced below.

Although I met about 20 people in the neighborhood that day–most of them families sitting together sorting plastic bottles and other more valuable scraps from the trash–I did not take pictures of anyone outside the school.  People who live in the neighborhoods that get called “slums” are rarely begging for their picture to be taken–and for good reason.  If media come poking around a slum it’s likely that it’s already slated for demolition or soon will be.

People often picture slums as brutally poor neighborhoods in big cities, but that’s not necessarily true.  There are “slumdwellers” in India who have color TV, air-conditioning and send their kids to private schools.  There are also “slumdwellers” who live out on the outskirts of construction sites and industrial parks, sleeping in tents made out of cast-off tarps without any access to electricity, sewers or drinking water.

The neighborhood I walked through on Friday was one of the latter–an eerily quiet place where the loudest thing was the sound of the grain mill running in a small factory across the road from where most of the families made their homes in tents behind a crumbling wall.  Aside from the grain mill and the old walls and the school, it felt like the middle of nowhere.

At some point in the recent past, Delhi decided to move all industry outside the city limits and focus instead on becoming a world-class showcase city, a place people come to visite, shop, eat, and do business but not necessarily make things.  The government officials in the neighboring province of Haryana eagerly took on Delhi’s exiting industry, turning thousands of acres of farmland into new industrial parks to host upwards of 1,700 new factories.

For everyone but the farmers who once worked this rezoned land, it is, in many ways,  a wonderful opportunity for the people of Haryana.  Well-run factories can provide thousands of new jobs in a relatively safe and clean work environment. They foster demand for new homes, new stores and new levels of consumption–the supposed stuff of economic growth.

But factories also produce a great deal of waste and that waste has to go somewhere.  In many places around the world, factories can throw out whatever they like and someone else will deal with it–either because it pays to–albeit in painfully small amounts–or because they have no choice, no channel through which to tell the factories to pile their garbage elsewhere.

In the place I visited, many factories dump their waste–scraps of foam from shoe beds, plastic sheets from construction sites–in the middle of supposedly empty fields.  People live in these fields, selling what little valuable scrap they can find in the giant piles of waste and burning the rest for fuel and warmth–breathing in untold numbers of toxic chemical compounds as they do so.

As far as any census or government program is concerned, these people are not known and therefore cannot be helped and do not exist. This has both advantages and disadvantages for them.  Because no one knows they exist, they can live on the land for free, eeking out a living on the informal economy.  On the other hand, because no one knows they exist and because they are in the middle of nowhere, they have no basic infrastructure to rely on.  Whereas slum dwellers in cities can often find a live wire to “borrow” electricity, or an unguarded water line they can tap into, in the middle of nowhere there is truly nothing but the sky above, the ground below, and perhaps an old well dug for the crops that once grew on the land.

I kept asking the Conserve founder if her school in the rag-picking settlement was an alternative to the public schools, infamous across India for their absent teachers and overcrowded classrooms.  It took her answering the question at least three times for me to understand.  Her school isn’t an alternative to anything, it’s the only one out there.

Though the barbed-wire might look foreboding, this school is a very, very welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Conserve built the school to serve the children of the people they currently employ, as well as those who they one day hope to employ in their factory.  Though they plan to purchase rickshaws or a bus to grow their school as soon as they can afford it, for now they can only take on as many students as live close enough to walk from school to their homes under the constant supervision of their teachers.  Children disappear constantly from slums–they are easy targets for human traffickers–and Conserve does not want to risk a child leaving school one day and never making it home.

The school is incredibly basic–four dark, tiny classrooms with clay floors opening onto a small courtyard–but it is one of the very few non-factory structures in the area made of bricks and mortar instead of tarps and twine.  The children sit on rugs made of fabric scraps and write their lessons on chalkboards for now, but Conserve hopes to bring in computers as soon as they get electricity.  They attend school for 3 hours a day and follow a very basic curriculum.  For most, it’s more school than either they or their parents have ever experienced.  Their teachers are bright and dedicated, troubled by the bleak surroundings but determined to provide a quality education in spite of them.

Please know that all of these children have some sort of shoes to wear. They take them off before entering the classroom in order to keep the room cleaner.

As for the mountains of factory waste dumped into the settlement and piled up against the walls of the school?  Conserve is working on that too, slowly fostering relationships with all of the factories in the area to handle their waste products and use them as raw materials to expand production and train and employ even more waste-pickers.   They hope to eventually turn the area into India’s first zero-waste industrial park.

Training and employing former waste-pickers and ensuring that their basic needs are met is painstaking, time-intensive and often delicate work.  The causes of poverty are never simple nor one-dimensional.  Solving one problem often reveals an entirely different set of issues that need to be tackled as well before any lasting changes can take hold.  With so much to do, it’s hard for an outsider like myself to imagine how difficult it is to determine which issues to prioritize, the best ways to help, and what to do when the goals and desires of the people in need do not match those of the people trying to help.

As an observer without the power to fix anything, it is so tempting to write sweeping, oversimplified generalizations in the misguided hope that expressing them in this way might somehow render them more solvable by the end of the last paragraph.  If only it were that easy.

Organizations like Conserve can’t do it all, they can’t fix everything; but they deeply understand the confounding nuances of the challenges they face and they work creatively to overcome them.  I hope to write about some of these nuances and complexities here to both augment and inform the more reader-friendly pieces I’ll be writing for Conserve over the next few months.  With that in mind, I will simply sign off for now and encourage readers to check out the Conserve website (again, an overhaul is in the works) for more information.

Courtesy of Wander This World.