The case of India’s child rag pickers
A day in the life of …
Atif’s day begins at 5 am daily. He walks to the garbage mounds located over two kilometres away to pick waste and bring sacks of it back to the scrap dealer’s shop in his locality in Ambujwadi, an informal settlement in Malwani, Mumbai. At times, he even goes into the nallah (storm-water drain) because it is flooded with all kinds of waste that may fetch him some extra money. Atif is paid Rs 12 for one kilo of ‘marketable waste’, i.e., waste that can be sold for a price to recyclers. This includes glass pieces, bottle caps, metal products like nuts and bolts, certain kinds of plastic, etc.
‘There are many kinds of waste; you need to know what to pick, else you will not get paid for it,’ says this thirteen-year-old, showing me what he has picked up on that day.
Once he is done with his work, Atif calls out to his friends, other rag-picking children, and they play for some time. Sometimes they play with marbles, or they place bets (on money or some waste bottles collected). The games continue till afternoon. When the children are hungry, they go to the junk food stall owned by the same scrap dealer, buying their afternoon snack for Rs 5 or Rs 10 a plate.
In the early evening, the children venture out once again to pick more waste, either at the beach shore of the nearby Aksa Beach or at the different garbage mounds in the Malwani area. They return in the late evening. While some of them go home, others hang around till late. Some of them smoke or drink cheap thinner, playing with each other and finally taking rest in the parked rickshaws or on the rooftops of shops or other tenements.
What constitutes rag picking?
Atif’s daily activities are not unfamiliar to the millions of children who work as rag-pickers in India. Among the country’s street children (about whose total number there is no official estimate), rag picking is the leading occupation. According to UNICEF, about 12% children in India between the ages 5–14 years are engaged in hazardous child labour activities, including rag-picking. This kind of labour involves rummaging through waste, collecting it, and segregating the parts of it that can be sold for recycling. It is manually intensive work which requires less skill and thus can be easily done by children. India reports an estimated 17 million child labourers, a very high incidence worldwide, and a recent study reveals that the number of child rag pickers is increasing in the country. Without their efforts, civic waste management bodies would have a much tougher time keeping the environment clean. However, these children work in toxic environments daily, without any protective gear. With the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, the wages received by children through rag picking has declined further.
The growing incidence of this practice
In Ambujwadi, where Atif lives, most of the residents work in the informal labour sector. The area is deficient in basic services and amenities like water, sanitation and adequate education, health and nutrition facilities. Large-sized families live in cramped surroundings; children play an important role in the family’s economy from a young age. Child neglect is also very high, given the time, money and resource crunch.
Some of the reasons why child rag-picking exists in this community include:
Large family size and stark living conditions: The average family size in Ambujwadi is 5 members. Children are thus viewed as additional hands that can help feed a large family, and are either sent out for work or driven by the family’s helpless situation.
Growing trend of single-parent families and child neglect: In many cases, one parent has either abandoned the family or passed away, leaving behind a single parent who is either engaged at work or is an addict, and has no time to cater to the physical and emotional needs of the child. The children prefer to mingle with their friends who together engage in rag-picking many a time.
School drop-outs take to rag picking: Children often dropout from school due to lack of a captivating education environment, difficulty in understanding the medium of instruction, lack of motivation from the family, poor schooling facilities, evictions and frequent migration. This has been cited as one of the leading reasons why children take up rag-picking.
Effect on children
The consequences of this work on children are striking. They face physical, psycho-social, and emotional trauma. Physically, the children are malnourished and face health issues due to their erratic and unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle. Many children admit to being addicted to paan masala, bidis/cigarettes, cheap liquor, thinner and other drugs. Rag picking also makes children highly susceptible to injury and infections. They often develop cysts and blisters from the untreated open wounds which fester over a period of time. Psycho-socially, these children are ostracised by society. Their friends are other children engaged in rag-picking as they know that they will not be accepted by children from other backgrounds. They are treated as untouchables who must not be touched, lest one gets contaminated. These children starve for love and care that they haven’t received from their support systems. Moreover, they are more vulnerable to be sexually abused by older rag-pickers and drug addicts. This causes a long-lasting impact on their psyche and damages them completely.
It is very challenging to work with children engaged in rag-picking. Interventions need to take place at several levels. Through our engagements with these children so far, we have counselled them, offered them non-formal education through creative means such as art, and organised play sessions and group building activities with them. The next-level interventions are with the family and involve home visits and counselling. When the guardian is unable to deliver adequate child care, one strategy followed is to contact Childline 1098, an emergency helpline for children in distress, to refer the child to institutional care. Finally, we have tried to enrol children back in schools through the School Chalo Abhiyaan and followed up with their progress. However, the quality of education offered to them in the schools accessible and the difficulty in concentrating in a classroom setting has already caused many of them to drop out again. Therefore, we continue to administer non-formal education, particularly life skills sessions, that may be of some use to them practically.
An integrated approach is key
What we have found imperative in working with children engaged in child labour, especially rag-pickers, is that we cannot ask them to discontinue their work as many of them and their families survive on the work they do. Thus, an integrated approach and not one that operates in isolation, can work. Meanwhile, we try to reduce the risks children face as much as possible by making them aware of their rights, and by working with their associated ecosystems—the family, peers, school etc. — as each of these plays a big role in shaping up their future.
In high-risk, eviction prone communities such as these, where life is a struggle and insecurity and uncertainty is high, speaking of child rights in isolation is immaterial. To help children grow strong and capable, we must empower their communities first to break their shackles of poverty. Once basic needs are no longer a struggle, and the community and the larger public protests against the practice of employing children as rag-pickers, change will be afoot. To do away with the practice of child rag picking, we also need to focus on quality and sustainable education, healthcare, adequate living conditions, among other essential social indicators.
When asked whether he would prefer a life different from the one he currently has and whether he would like to go back to school, Atif says, ‘I know that by studying in school and getting a job, I would not have to do this gaddha mazdoori (heavy-load work/ literally: donkey’s work), but I don’t have an option now. I have to live like this.’ Atif says this as he nurses the many wounds, cuts and scars on his legs and hands acquired on account of his work.
Alicia Tauro, Project Associate