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The Plight of Rag-pickers

Theertha Aravind | June 21, 2022


“As the sun rises over Delhi, 16-year-old Radha slings a gunny sack over her shoulder and ambles off to work. Her destination is the back lanes of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg in Delhi, where she and her friends rummage through roadside trash and rubbish dumps for tangled wires, cardboard, bottle caps, dry pens, toothless combs, fused bulbs, and anything else that can feed the huge Indian recycling industry, the biggest in the world, and thus earning them a living. “


Who are rag-pickers? From the account, it is evident that they are the ones who scrounge for gold in garbage dumps every day. Garbage is their daily bread, it is a roof over their heads, it is their means of survival. Sounds terrifying, doesn't it? This sounds absurd to us who is reading this from the comfort of our own homes, with a solid roof over our heads by our good fortune. But these rag-pickers are the ones who are less fortunate and rely upon the wastes and garbage that we discard for their survival.


The rag-pickers constitute 0.1 - 0.4 percent in seven West African cities, 0.7 percent in South Africa, 1 percent in India, 0.2 percent in Ghana and are also present in Palestine, Latin America, etc.


This rag-picking tradition is predominant in India where there are nearly 4 million rag-pickers. The most surprising aspect of this is that along with adults, their children are also engaged in it. According to UNICEF, about 12% of children in India between the ages of 5–14 years are engaged in this hazardous activity. Why are there so many children working as rag-pickers?


Poor access to quality education is the major reason. ‘We have nothing else to do’, is the answer given by many such children. The reasons for dropouts are many and include a lack of a captivating education environment in school, difficulty in understanding the medium of instruction, lack of motivation from the family, evictions, and frequent migrations. As a result, many children follow in their family’s footsteps by taking up rag-picking. Some are forced into the occupation, as no one else is willing to do the ‘dirty work’ performed by this community.


Rag-pickers are regularly exposed to cuts, chemical poisons, and infections, and are also susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis. All of this is aside from the general poverty, harassment, substance abuse, and sexual violence they encounter on the streets. Because of malnutrition, children from these communities are often stunted. 


Darkness Under the Lamps was a study undertaken by the Centre for Equity Studies in an urban village in south Delhi where many ragpickers live. They complained that they were treated “with suspicion and derision, because of their extreme poverty, the vocation of rag-picking and minority faith.”


Of course, it is natural for most of us to treat those who segregate and work with garbage like garbage, right? But just think about how it affects their mental health and the extent to which they are hurt when they are discriminated against for the work they do because they have no better choice. 


A few women from Uttar Pradesh were asked for the one thing they would ask from the government. Disposal bins for the waste leftover from sorting, they said. Without bins, this waste simply piles up in their homes and lanes.


“Give us that and access to water. We buy two buckets of water every other day and pay Rs 1,000-2,000 a month to the one person who has a hand pump. If we can get a tanker, we could bathe properly. Yes we deal with garbage, but we want to be able to live in a space that is clean,” the women said.

Thus, we can conclude that while rag-pickers do help in cleaning up and segregating garbage, it is at a colossal cost: their mental and physical health. Now if they did have quality gear to perform segregation of wastes, and if the children of rag-pickers are sent to schools, rag-picking would have been more acceptable. The governments of the respective countries need to work towards the welfare of the rag-pickers and of course, they must try to eliminate the act of rag-picking altogether.



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