Kolkata's little rag pickers lose childhood in dirt streets

Kolkata's little rag pickers lose childhood in dirt streets

By Liza Gomes | 29 Nov 2016

At his age, other children go to school with bags carrying books. He too carries something- a sack to pick up rags from the dirt and stinks of streets in Kolkata that expose him to health hazards every day.

“If I don’t earn money and contribute to the family expenses, my mother will stop providing food for us,” says 12-year-old Akash Majhi, who works as a rag picker in the slum area of Tangra in east Kolkata.

The little boy, who is expected to attend school at the age of 12, has been working as a rag picker to support his family.

Akash lost his father at the age of 5. His mother married another man who left them when Akash was just 8 years old. Since then he has taken the family responsibility and has started supporting his mother with the minimum wage that he receives to run the family.

Akash has one young brother, Bikash (8 years) and a sister named Sonia (5 years). His mother works as a rag picker too and what she earns is not enough to support the entire family.

Poverty, illiteracy and a family without a proper guardian has compelled him to take up the mantle which was left unoccupied, when his father passed away. He works from morning till evening collecting glass bottles, paper, iron materials and carrying it to the dumping ground. After hours of hard work that includes sorting the garbage separately, he receives only Rs 100 (less than 2$) per day. This is barely enough to cover the expenditure of his entire family.

“Whole day I work hard and roam around to collect maximum amount of rags that I can and end of the day I receive only Rs 100 which is not sufficient to provide for my family. Blisters have appeared in my palm, but I have to work,” said Akash.

A monotonous work routine is what this little boy follows, and his disconsolate situation doesn’t seem to be changing anytime.

“I might earn more if I study, but I can’t attend school even if I want to. After my second father left us when I was 8 years old, I started working as a rag picker. I have promised my mom to support my family and provide money for food. I save Rs 10 (less than 2$) per day and give all that I earn to my mother,” says Akash.

Akash started attending school when he was 11 years old. He was sent to a centre by the NGO volunteers.

“I was happy to be with my new friends in the Centre. But after two months, my mother brought me back and I resumed to rag picking job,” says Akash, who loved his time in school but destiny was a cruel mistress for him.

Akash was brought back from the Centre by his mother because she wanted him to support them financially. 

The NGO which helped Akash works for the destitute children who have no choice but to enter the desolate world of rag picking. It provides educational and healthcare facilities.

There are many such cases like Akash Majhi that the volunteers encounter.  There are many children in the Tangra slum area who earn their daily bread by working as rag pickers. They collect rags from the nearby area of Tangra. Poverty and less opportunity have compelled them to work at a tender age while they were supposed to study and play.

Their goal is to earn more to support their family for going the idea of a bright future. The children reside in the filthy area of Tangra region, beside the railway track. They get exposed to hazardous waste which has adversely affected their health. It has caused diseases like cancer and tuberculosis. They suffer from multiple health issues as the area is very unhygienic and disease prone.

According to a study by research groups titled "Occupational and Environmental Health Hazards (Physical & Mental) Among Rag-Pickers in Mumbai Slums" published in Science Journal of Public Group, the rag pickers  develop bad habits of smoking, chewing pan, tobacco and gutaka and are also likely to be exposed to alcohol.

"Adverse work condition, poor nutrition, inability to practice personal hygiene measures were the contributory factors reflected in their morbidity profile of the rag pickers. The key determinants of health of participants were found which includes addiction, low knowledge about diseases spread due to handling of solid waste and personal hygiene practices, lower levels of health seeking behaviour etc.," it concludes.

At the age of ten Akash also got addicted to drugs and alcohol. There are many other children living in the area who suffer from similar degenerative vices to which they have been exposed so prematurely.

“We took Akash to our Centre when he was just 11 years old. Akash was addicted to drugs like other boys who work in that area. His mother was not ready to send him to the Centre as she wanted her to contribute to the family expenses.

"Finally she agreed. It took time for him to get out of the addiction. He was suffering from pain. But we never left hope and continued with our treatments,” says Sufia Ahmed, community worker. She has been associated with an NGO since six years that works for the children, who are forced into the work of rag picking.

“Akash soon got accustomed to the environment he was in. But after 6 months, his mother took him back. We fear that he will get into such bad addictions again.  Parents fail to understand the importance of sending their child to the Centre. We can’t go against their wishes and we can’t do anything if mothers don’t agree to send them to u,” adds Sufia Ahmed.

The pain and suffering has replaced the mischief and twinkle that should have been present in the eyes of a child, the age of Akash. He looks into the future without joy while narrating his story.

(Images by Anunay Arko)

(Name of the boy and community worker changed in order to protect identity)

Kolkata's little rag pickers lose childhood in dirt streets

By Liza Gomes
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