THE RAG PICKER
The rag picker, with a gunny bag on his shoulder is a universal pitiable figure in all the metropolitan cities in India. One can find a Ramanna in Chennai, a Ramnath in Delhi, an Edward in Cochin, a Karim in Kanpur, and Balu in Chandigarh dressed in shabby clothes moving in the lanes and by lanes of these beautiful cities. The rag picker, a dirty boy, moves with a small stick to shoo off the street dogs. None sympathizes with him. No one takes a pity on him. He is rather a hateful sight in the posh localities of New Delhi and Mumbai for the collects dirty rags from heaps and mounds of rubbish.
The rag picker, generally below teens, is no one’s child. He might have come from a remote village. He might have been abandoned by his parents. He may be working under a slum mafia who has provided a roof to him to sleep. But in many cases he is an orphan who sells his rags in the evening for rupees ten to twenty and after meals sleeps anywhere in the open.
Like animals a rag picker braves the scorching heat of the summer or shivering cold of the winter. He can’t complain to anyone. None would listen to his crying heart. When the children in posh localities would sleep comfortably on foam cushions with their pets dog the rag picker would embrace the street dog to find some warmth in the cold night. His childhood has been snatched away from him by the apathetic society. The rice or chapatti hawker at the street comer is his only friend who would provide him food for a few rupees. Dirty unbathed body, dirty clothes, dirty rags, dirty chapattis and dirty dishes is his whole world.
But a rag picker is a human being. He has sentiments and emotions. He too has his dreams however childish they may be. He too fancies of a bright future. But he is crushed every day. His dreams are never realized. He wants to forget them or to have more superficial fancies. He goes to the panwala in a lane of Kalba Devi in Mumbai, Connaught Place in New Delhi or Annasalai in Chennai. He exchanges 50% of his income for a dose of smack or brown sugar. He is in his land of fancies. But he becomes a drug addict and invites death much before his youth starts.
I live in a slum. My father is a garbage collector and my mother stays at home looking after my younger brother. I also have two older sisters who work like me as ragpickers. Most children in my slum are ragpickers. We go to garbage dumps and collect items like bottle crowns, plastic bottles and polythene bags. The older children, like my sisters, collect electronic items like batteries and mobile phones.
We have our areas distributed. Usually there is a contractor who assigns work to us. He works for the private company that manages the garbage dumps for the municipality. I have to walk about an hour to get to my area, Lajpat Nagar. I start at around 8 am. I am allowed to pick garbage from about five dumps in the area, which is mainly residential. There is a market nearby, but the garbage dumps in that area are manned by older boys.
I have two boys as my friends. They come from the same slum as mine. Together, we spend about four hours collecting items and then we hand it over to the contractor. There are workers there who separate the items and put them in different bags. The plastic bags are loaded onto a tempo and taken to the scrap market. Some older children go to the scrap market themselves to sell their items. We just hand them over to the contractor.
After handing over the items, we play for some time in a park before heading home. My father collects the money from the contractor after some days. I don’t know how much it is.
We don’t get shoes or gloves from the contractor. NGOs tell us that we should get them. My friend once got hurt by a broken piece of glass. I have a wound in my hand that I have to keep bandaged as it swells up quite often. Older people separate food items from the garbage. If they find some food that they can eat, they keep it. We find food very rarely.
(This ragpicker is 11 years old and lives in a slum in south Delhi)
As told to Aanchal Bansal