Bags with heart

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

Every day, tens of thousands of plastic bags are thrown out in the Indian capital, New Delhi. They are moved from waste dump to waste dump, only to end up in an even bigger dump.

Along the way, New Delhi's two million scavengers, or 'rag pickers', pick among the rubbish to find bags, cardboard, paper, plastic - anything and everything that can be recycled, so that they can earn enough in a day to feed their families. The rag pickers are a part of society which has long been ignored . . . until Anita Ahuja came along.

A political writer for many years, when Ms Ahuja received threats to her family because she was writing about a certain politician, she gave it up. She was tired of writing and wanted a new challenge. Just under five years ago, she created a non-governmental organisation called Conserve.

'I began with recycling kitchen waste. But then I started to look at the thousands of plastic bags that are thrown away in New Delhi every day and I began to co-operate with the rag pickers. These are people who have to live on a dollar a day and are ignored in India.'

Ms Ahuja's husband came up with a scientific method to blend the plastic bags picked and washed by the rag pickers and other workers.

The bags are then sewn into high-end handbags which are sold around Europe and will be soon sold in hundreds of shops in China, but unfortunately not in Hong Kong.

While Ms Ahuja recently visited the city to make contacts, Hongkongers, she says, like things with brand names. Environmental awareness isn't a factor.

Yet she says her bags have universal appeal.

'I now work with 300 people. The rag pickers especially are from all over India and some [other workers] are from other countries including Afghanistan, so we all speak different languages ... We decided to name [the colours] after Bollywood stars, as everyone is familiar with Bollywood actors.'

Ms Ahuja finds her project worthwhile

not only in terms of environmental conservation, but also because of its social value - providing work and medical insurance for people who are forgotten and shunned by the rest of society.

And the help has been very much two-way. 'I have learned so much from the rag pickers and other people who I work with,' says Ms Ahuja. 'I have had the chance to study, yet they often know much more than me. They are street smart, where I am very innocent.'