How ACORN could intrude on President Obama's India visit

Activists tied to ACORN International, an offshoot of the US group that caused President Obama so much trouble in the 2008 election, will protest outside Obama's speech to India's Parliament Monday.

By , Staff writer

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    U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he is received by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the airport in New Delhi, India, Sunday. ACORN International plans to protest outside India's Parliament as Obama gives a speech, Monday.
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On his trip to India's commercial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), President Obama addressed entrepreneurs, university students, and Asia's richest man, who just built himself a 27-story house.

But he stayed far away from Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, which was made famous worldwide by the hit 2008 movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

Inside the slum lies an impolitic connection from Obama's past that – like Shakespeare's Falstaff – could have helped balance the president's view into the lives of citizens here.

The ACORN Foundation India works to organize the slum's trash collectors and sorters known as "ragpickers." The group was set up separately by the founder of the ACORN community organization that Obama once worked with in America. Opponents assailed Obama's ties to ACORN after some of its workers falsified voter registrations during the 2008 presidential contest.

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In India, the model does not involve widespread voter registration of the poor – partly because groups like the ragpickers are disenfranchised in the world's largest democracy. Many of them are migrants or homeless who lack the proof of residence papers needed to vote, says Vinod Shetty, the Mumbai head of the ACORN India Foundation.

"At every stage they are asked for proof of identity, proof of residence. So if you don't have [that] you are treated as a criminal in the city. So then they have to bribe someone to get something all the time," says Mr. Shetty. "They are in fact lining the pockets of all these authorities, who have a vested interest in keeping them either informal or without papers."

ID cards for ragpickers

ACORN India issues the ragpickers identification cards that help cut down harassment by police and neighborhood watch groups.

But since the group cannot be turned easily into a vote bank or organized against a single employer – most are self-employed – they have been ignored by politicians and labor unions.

ACORN India is working with the ragpickers to form a cooperative that helps the adults bargain collectively for better prices and social standing, while providing their kids educational scholarships and enrichment.

"In a city like [Mumbai] you need to be from a powerful section of the poor to grab land or even squat. If you are not protected by a political party, or by a community, or by any kind of gangsters or slumlord, you may not even get that space," says Shetty.

Life in the slum

Instead, some of the 150,000 to 200,000 ragpickers in Mumbai live on top of the garbage they sort on the fringes of Dharavi.

One such colony lives under a highway overpass around a trash heap hemmed in by two massive water pipes. The pipes have become sidewalks connecting hovels where ragpickers skillfully squeeze profit from the 10,000 tons of trash discarded daily in the metropolis.

Some are cutting large cardboard boxes into smaller panels that are cut and pressed together to form new, smaller boxes with their old logos cleverly flipped inside. Even the old staples are recycled.

Others are sorting for specific detritus like car headlamps or bicycle handlebar grips; such items take on value in bulk.

A man named Syed Sheikh sits under a canopy sorting through a sack of plastic junk he bought for 50 cents. He pulls an item out, taps it against a rock, then tosses it into one of the many bags and piles around him.

"I tap the rock to understand: Different plastic makes different sounds," he says.

Plastic that's sorted by color and by grade sells for $3.50 to $23 per sack. Even with his fast pace, the work nets less than 67 cents an hour for him. Still, after three hours of work a day he will earn more than 75 percent of Indians do, according to World Bank data from 2005.

While he lives in a very expensive city and Indian wages have grown in the past five years, his economic reality remains closer to the majority of Indians than the elite Obama met.

'Green-collar' workforce?

Shetty says roughly 40 percent of all Mumbai's waste gets recycled, meaning ragpickers are part of the "green-collar" workforce that politicians and industrialists tout as a "win-win" between environmental and business concerns. ACORN India is resisting efforts to commercialize the sector unless the ragpickers are the ones chosen for the formalized jobs.

Standing in the foot-deep sea of worthless tiny plastic pieces outside Mr. Sheikh's tent, one can see the tall buildings of Mumbai's most expensive offices, including Indian Oil, Citibank, and Reliance Industries, the company owned by Asia's richest man.

The distance, in many ways, is far greater than the gap between the Chicago streets of Obama's early career and the halls of power in Washington.

"I think President Obama is a long way away from community organizing now," says Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN. While he says Obama carries lessons from his community work, "he's playing a different game."

Indeed, Obama has used his trip to bring together the heads of multinational corporations to argue for free trade as a means of job creation and economic growth in both countries.

ACORN International's focus on world's mega-slums

Mr. Rathke, who left the US ACORN group in 2008, focuses now on a separate organization he founded named ACORN International. The group has members in nine countries, including India, and focuses on the billion or so people who live in mega-slums.

Activists tied to ACORN International will protest outside Obama's speech to Parliament Monday to pressure Indian lawmakers not to allow foreign companies like Wal-Mart into retail.

"We're trying to organize a vast base in order to push on all political parties," Rathke says. "The vision is that people should have the power and they should be able to push governments and corporations to do the right things."


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