Away from the photo ops

Long before Swachh Bharat, thousands of children have been keeping India clean — not for any lofty ideal of citizenship, but to survive.

Published: November 14, 2014 12:53:02 am
rag-pickers Long before the prime minister exhorted children to pick up a broom and do their civic duty to keep India clean, thousands of children have in fact already been keeping India clean. (Source: AP)

By: Atiya Bose 

At the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan last month, thousands of children and youth solemnly took the pledge: “Ab hamara kartavya hain ki gandagi ko door karke Bharat Mata ki sewa karein. (Now it is our duty to serve Mother India by getting rid of dirt.)” Every citizen must do their rightful civic duty and work to clean India for two hours every week for a total of 100 hours a year. Fired up by this, dozens of schools have organised events at which children have been encouraged to pick up a broom and start cleaning.

Here’s the irony: Long before the prime minister exhorted children to pick up a broom and do their civic duty to keep India clean, thousands of children have in fact already been keeping India clean. They don’t do it for any lofty ideal of citizenship, or for some photo opportunity. “Pet ka sawal hai. Nahin to koi aisa ganda kaam kyun karunga? (You have to fill your stomach. Why else would anyone do this dirty work?),” 13-year-old Saif says. For children like him, it is how he earns a living. “It’s not just dirty, it’s also dangerous,” Saif’s friend, Deepu, adds. “People get killed in this line of work.” Deepu works in the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai. He is 15, and has been working here for the last four years. He sees himself as a bit of an expert. “It gets very hot when gas from the garbage fills the area.
Then there are explosions and fires, you can’t breathe or see anything. You have to run for your life with your eyes streaming.”

In the landfills of Deonar (Mumbai), Ghazipur (Delhi), Bhanpur (Bhopal), at neighbourhood garbage dumps and on the streets across urban India, scores of children of all ages are waging turf wars, handling excreta and toxic waste, being pricked by needles, cut by shards of glass, falling prey to illness and disease as they struggle to eke out a precarious existence, all the while keeping India clean for you and me. They are the ragpicker children. A ragpicker child is typically a Dalit or a minority. She may be a migrant or a street child. If she has family, they most likely are ragpickers too.

A career in the trash business can start as early as six — when the child is old enough to hold a sack and walk through mounds of garbage, nimble fingers picking out what’s recyclable and setting it aside to be sold. The day starts early for the ragpicker child — sometimes 4 or 5 in the morning, when it’s still dark, or cold. A workday is long, 9-10 hours, sometimes more, depending on one’s luck. It involves the backbreaking work of collection — when the ragpicker child comes to your doorstep, or to the street where you live, or your community garbage dhalao or further away from your view, at the landfill. The ragpicker child has no gloves, no shoes and no mask, nothing to protect her. Not surprising then that leisure for the ragpicker child frequently involves the use of substances — anything that can get you high, help you forget the filth and exhaustion and stop smelling the stench that emanates from your own body.

More devastating than the obvious hazards to health and wellbeing that characterise the ragpicker child’s life is the discrimination and abuse she faces. “The smell of garbage marks us. Everyone knows who we are and what we do by the way we smell. And so they hate us. They won’t talk to us, or even look at us. Even in school,” says Sunita, age 11. “Everyone says the dumping children are thieves. [“Dumping” is how children in dumping grounds refer to their work.] The police catch us for everything. If anything gets stolen and there is a dumping child there, he will get blamed for sure. Then he will get beaten and abused,” says Shambhu, age 12.

Since 2001, ragpicking and the handling of garbage has been on the list of hazardous work under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. This means that for children under the age of 14, this work is forbidden by law. That said, you will hear that there are an estimated 1,20,000-2,50,000 children who are doing this dangerous, hazardous and banned work. It is difficult to know the real numbers, since the work is easily hidden — it happens informally. In these informal settings, it’s easy to not recognise work as work and to pretend it’s the more benign and legally allowable category of children “helping out with household activities”.

When we volunteer ourselves and our children with a missionary zeal to clean the country, we should pause and think of the thousands of children for whom cleaning India is no exercise in volunteerism.

The writer is director of policy and advocacy at Aangan

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