Children sans Childhood: Rag Picking Children in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh
I am used to wander around to look at people not very much welcome to the civil and elite society – the society excluding unwelcome cross sections is generally self-claimed. My observations are about those who are projected in a way not much acceptable to people like me. One such case is the rag pickers who substitute both the vultures in extinction and the local administration.
The self-projected individuals and families discard wastes on public road without caring for the consequences. The garbage becomes the space for economic occupation for the rag pickers who age between five years and twenty years of both sexes. Some of these children are born local, some migrated with their parents years back from poverty belt in Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.
One such child I met was * Banskar aged around 15 who migrated from Rewa in MP around ten years back, lives in Minto Park with his parents, engaged in rag picking, often abused by the people on suspicion. He is married! He has a girl child and he says he will not allow his child to be engaged in this job. Though he himself started working as a rag picker with his father- both he and his father are illiterate. He is now self-employed and says, Í dig well daily to drink daily’. Is it in our language, ‘Living hand to mouth?’
There are others from the same areas who are engaged in rag picking in spite of being abused at both inside home and outside; many of them take recourse to drinks, gambling often inherited to get rid of the daily drudgery. The wonder society reproduces surplus labourers for us!
We took a sample of 25 child rag pickers of both male and female of which 20 had their parents/guardian and houses to live in. The rest were street children. They were from both Hindu and Muslim religion. We interviewed these 25 children plus their parents (20) residing in slums, five facilitators and five junk dealers who had links with them. We identified five wasteland points (Adda) of rag pickers following snowball sampling method. The rag picking locations were Jhusi, Manmohan Park, Behrana, Allahpur, and Allahabad Railway Station.
Most of the rag pickers were slum dwellers that facilitated them to get engaged in the city labour market. All the junk dealers and parents/guardians, and the Nagar Nigam officials in the city of Allahabad denied that they employed the children. Thus, by absence of any probable employer, the children were deemed self-employed in collection of waste materials for sale to junk dealers. The employer remaining absent, the 2016 Child Labour Amendment Act remained outside the ambit of the Administration to bring to book any employer for engaging children. The rag-picking children had no idea about the existence of any such Act meant to protect them.
The waste materials dispersed daily on public space showed the opportunity for the children to scratch in search of re-usable materials to collect for sale. This type of self-employment for collection of abandoned public resources did not need anybody to negotiate at the collection point. The collection, thus, was unobstructed and free from imposition of any penalty for trespassing.
The rag pickers generally faced no resistance while collecting materials discarded by people on public space. They used to assemble in a tea shop called Adda coming either on foot or on bicycles depending on the distance to be covered within the city. The children formed groups in Adda and self-allotted the number of wastelands intra-city.
The Kaabadiwaalas (junk dealers) in the city of Allahabad having fixed locations were the purchase points where the rag pickers used to sell materials after these were classified. The prices of items were fixed by the junk dealers. The rag pickers had no organization to represent them in bargaining for fixing the price per unit of the exchangeable materials.
In spite of most of the children willing to continue their studies, they could not because the adult members of their households did not have any certain source of income. They opined rag picking as the only means of survival notwithstanding the fact that many children expressed their inertia to get tied to this activity. The rag picking children were afraid even to tell their names and addresses. These children were not in schools. They had to continue rag picking because of household poverty. They either never got admission into school or were early dropped out for trade off between education and work that went against education. Delinked from school education, they were forced into rag picking.
Caste-coupled practice of looking at human beings as untouchables erected historical barriers against the latter in India. Children engaged in rag picking faced discrimination in schools from teachers and also from privileged children because of the social stigma attached to their work, their dirty clothes and absence of sense of hygiene. Even the children enrolled in schools continued to work as rag pickers and were often absent or used to come late and their concentration in studies reduced due to their fatigue. Few children in spite of willing to go to school could not do so for school time and working time conflicted.
The reason why children could not or did not attend school was not simply because they were engaged in rag picking or worked as wage-labour. In many cases parents could not afford the costs (fees, uniform, meals, and study materials) of education. Girl children used to look after younger ones at home. Education of girl children was not a priority for the parents.
The stigma of caste-cum-poverty encompassed the rag picking children. The children did not go to school even in case their hamlet had it because of their birth in lowest caste, living in dirty places and engaged on wasteland. The households of these communities lived in one-room jhopri (dilapidated kutcha room). The rag picking households residing in the slums migrated from different states that left them demobilized. These households used to live in fear lest they were evicted anytime. The rag pickers used to live under the scanner of suspicion. They remained silent for the civil society did not listen to them.