Being from a low-caste, a community of waste-pickers and a slum dweller means various levels of exclusion. The children born to waste-pickers who belong to the KKPKP collective in Pune use the internet as one way to break out of the social exclusion

curiosity

  • the desire to learn or know about anything
  • the look of an outsider

If there is one word that best describes the conversation around internet at a low-income settlement in Pune’s Aundh area, it is curiosity. I was meeting a group of youngsters with the objective of understanding whether they were excluded from the internet because they could not afford the devices to access it, or because they were not interested? Or were they adept at finding their way in the virtual world, more digital natives than novices? Or were they falling between the cracks of caste, class, gender and economy, flirting with the internet for this and that, yet not knowing its power or ability to critically reorder the expanse of experience?

Many of them had taken their first or first few steps into cyberspace; some had travelled quite a distance, striking up new friendships online, and yet others were unfamiliar with the ways of the net. But they were all curious: keyed into the possibilities the internet could provide, keen to learn, and looking for exposure. As outsiders, at many levels, they wanted a look in.

Outsiders, at many levels

A majority of the people residing in this slum are associated with the waste pickers’ union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP).

KKPKP was formed in 1993, bringing together “waste pickers, itinerant waste buyers, waste collectors and other informal recyclers”. The members “recover, collect, categorise and sell scrap materials such as corrugated board, paper, plastics, metals and glass for recycling”. One of the key aspects of this organising back in 1993 was to bring some dignity to the job that waste pickers were doing. Various accounts of waste pickers, available on the KKPKP website and in its documents, reveal how before the formation of the union, waste-pickers were treated like trash. They still are, in most parts of the country where waste-picking has not been formalised, and where the army of workers who walk from one trash dump to the other in search of recyclables are condemned to a life of ostracisation, and near-complete lack of hygiene.

To make matters worse, most of those engaged in waste-picking (even in the settlement I was visiting) are from the lower castes: traditionally, the caste system has worked to keep the lower castes ‘in place’ by designating all the dirty work for them.

With the formation of KKPKP and the formalisation of waste collection in parts of the city, thanks to an MoU with the Pune Municipal Corporation, children of some workers, egged on by their mothers, had been able to reap the benefits of education.

Mangal Gaikwad, a waste-picker and KKPKP member, says, “When I was a child I used to envy the children who went to school with their bags and water bottles while I had to go waste-picking.” Gaikwad’s colleagues in the slum talk along similar lines, and most of them have gone the extra mile in ensuring kids in their families have access to education.

Although Gaikwad has travelled abroad as part of KKPKP delegations, and is aware of the internet, she is not familiar with it. “We are uneducated, and will not be able to understand how it functions,” she notes. She is, however, keen that kids, especially girls in the locality, are introduced to the virtual world. “Can someone teach them the basics,” she asks.

First steps

A discussion at Gaikwad’s dwelling unit with 20-odd teenagers from the locality reveals that some of them are, in fact, familiar with the basics of cyberspace. Sanika Chandanshive, a Class VII student, says she first learnt of the internet around two years ago in school. Thereafter, she attended some sessions on using the internet at a private tuition class she is enrolled in. “I use the internet sometimes on a PC at the tuition class. I mainly use Google for getting information on subjects taught in class,” she says.

Aarti Bhosale also first learnt about the internet in school. “When I was in Class IX, there were some sessions in school on the internet. They told us you could get information on anything on the internet,” says the class XI student. Her brother, a couple of years older than her, owns a smartphone, and Aarti sometimes checks her email and searches for information on it. “I use it very rarely though. Apart from Google and email, I do not know much,” says Aarti.

Her brother Sachin Bhosale, a student of class XII, says he is self-taught as far as the internet is concerned. He had been told about it when he was in class IV. “I did not bother much then…It was only when I was in class VII that I started using the net. A couple of my friends in school had Facebook accounts, and they said you could make new friends through the site,” recalls Sachin.

Schools seem to have played a very limited role though in this journey into the online world for the kids who were part of the discussion. Sachin recollects how, when he was in class VII, there were theoretical sessions in school on “what are search engines, how to find information online and how to open email accounts”. His sister too says there were only theoretical sessions in school. Rutuj Jadhav, a class VI student, says although her school has a computer lab and an internet connection, students are not allowed to use it.

As the discussion was on, kids kept trooping in and out of the room—the distinction between the ‘private’ dwelling area and the ‘public’ lanes and bylanes, so clearly marked out in gentrified sections of our cities, was absent here, as it is in other slums. This ‘floating population’ that became a part of the conversation inadvertently, however, was useful in showing how girls lagged behind boys as far as using the internet was concerned.

While the 6-7 boys who were present were quite adept at navigating the online world, only a few of the 15-odd girls had ever used the internet. Most seemed to know about the internet, thanks to theoretical sessions in school; but only a few, who were fortunate to have a brother or a father who encouraged them to use the internet, were somewhat familiar with the online world.

Bridging the divide

In the bunch of girls who had assembled for the discussion, Rutuj Jadhav, the class VI student, stood out. When she was in class IV, she says with a glint in her eyes, her father told her ‘When you don’t find some information in the textbook, you can download it using Google on my phone and study’. She has since often ventured into cyberspace, to get more information about Shivaji, the human body, body parts of a crocodile et al. “There is so much information on everything,” she says, adding that her father cautions her against spending too much time online, and does not allow her to visit sites and pages related to films and songs. “My father says it is a waste of time,” she rues. A couple of other girls around her said their fathers had also cautioned them similarly.

Boys, however, do not seem to have any constraints in terms of prohibition from elders in the family. All the boys present said they regularly downloaded songs and videos, and had accounts on Facebook.

“Initially, I would spend almost 5-6 hours in a day online. Ek pagalpan mehsoos kiya tab (I felt a certain madness then),” says Sachin, who took the lead in introducing Facebook to his friends in the locality. “I never used to understand how things work online till Sachin explained it to me,” says Krishna Bharakwad, adding, “Now I have over 350 friends on Facebook and regularly download and watch videos.”

Everyone in the group of boys was on Facebook, and reported experiencing a certain kind of thrill. “In 2009, when I first logged on to Facebook, I would spend entire nights chatting with friends,” continues Akshay Bhosale. He met a couple of girls he befriended on Facebook at cafes, but others have not been so lucky. Sachin, for instance, says, “Once you ask female friends on Facebook to meet, they don’t seem to bother…Many of them may be fake accounts.”

The presence of fake accounts, of boys posing as girls and chatting with other boys, however, does not seem to prevent these kids from seeking out new female friends. Mangesh, who joins the conversation while passing by, notes, “Chatting is easy compared to talking to girls face to face. On Facebook or WhatsApp, I can easily tell a girl ‘I like you’ or ‘I like your eyes or your hair’. In real life, that is not so easy. Plus, the girls are also shy.”

When Sachin interjected to note that because of the regular Facebook jaunts, they were far more ‘bold’ in real life now—they could talk to girls with far more ease than earlier—all the others seemed to agree.

The boys are also avid users of WhatsApp and have also formed a group using the app for their friends from the locality. “We mostly share jokes and pictures on the WhatsApp group,” says Lakhan Bharakwad, who also has Hike, Viber and WeChat messaging apps on his phone.

Access to the internet has also opened another world for them: that of nude pictures and pornographic videos. “Earlier, everything used to be very hush-hush, but now you can access these videos online easily,” says Krishna. The boys said that access to such videos had given them ideas regarding new positions. “But then, the girl must be experienced…otherwise, she is not able to perform…” notes Krishna. Not so ironically, this free access to pornography has made some boys like Sachin protective in terms of allowing internet access for sisters at home. “They must not be exposed to such things, so we need to keep the time they spend online limited,” he says.

Of late, some in this group have started visiting e-commerce sites. Krishna says his bank account is also internet-enabled, and sometimes, friends use it to pay for stuff online. For others like Akshay, the preferred mode of payment is ‘cash on delivery’. “I recently ordered a pair of goggles on Flipkart,” he says.

The goggles are perhaps Krishna’s way of fitting into a society that has traditionally excluded his ilk. Being from a low-caste, a community of waste-pickers and a slum dweller has meant various levels of exclusion. Some of this, the pair of goggles may help break. And the internet, in its various avatars, seems to be helping this process. Once outsiders, these kids are trying to find their way into the mainstream, riding on the internet.

netpehchaan.in October 2014