Politics of Appropriation & Representation of Workers’ Lives

Once a Brahmin activist asked me -why do you keep ‘dragging’ wastepickers to speak in various forum of government, academia and civil society. They can’t articulate themselves. It hit me hard at first that there is this widespread belief that workers can’t represent themselves very well. I was told the similar thing by another Delhi based activist, who said that wastepickers don’t know about the larger politics. This notion that workers can’t speak for themselves is very snobbish and shows the inability of the activists to understand a basic fact that workers are human beings, like human beings they can articulate and represent themselves.

Sometimes I feel that many activists don’t want the workers to speak for themselves. Academicians hate that too. In many workers forums, there will be panels about workers’ lives and status, yet one won’t find a single worker on the panel. The panel will largely have left-leaning (sometimes right-leaning too) middle-class men, from government officials to activists to academicians, all those who like their own voice very much and experts in the domain of workers lives.

In one such forum on workers, I was doing the translation of proceedings and informing the workers about the panelists, who were going to speak. One of the participants, a worker from Chhattisgarh, asked me- क्या हमें भी बोलने का मौका मिलेगा (Will we get a chance to speak)? The irony stood out laughing and saying that ‘workers are asking for a chance to speak at the convention on workers’.

I have decided that I won’t participate in any forum, conference, the workshop on workers’ rights, where workers are not adequately represented either in a panel or as facilitators. The workers must represent themselves, their identities whether of caste, religion or gender should be represented.

Last day, we (the Alliance of Indian Waste-pickers & Hasiru Dala) had a consultation of wastepickers on Karnataka’s proposed Solid Waste Management By-laws. Wastepickers articulated themselves with clarity, they provided their own understanding of law and what they seek from the proposed law. They participated in the discussion and presented their understanding to the larger group. They knew very well that they are well equipped to speak for themselves and on behalf of others like them.

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