Help at hand for New Delhi wastepickers
By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi, Financial Times
December 3, 2012
The Ghazipur Landfill is New Delhi’s biggest rubbish dump, 31 acres packed with the detritus of India’s increasingly consumption-driven economy.
Each day, another 2,500 tons of trash are dumped here. Methane gas from rotting food and other organic waste regularly explodes into bright fireballs. Smoke from burning plastic billows towards the sky; birds of prey circle overhead.
Every day at 4am, 12-year-old Luvkush Singh trudges to the top of this fetid heap to search freshly dumped refuse for metal, plastic and other recyclable items to sell to junk dealers. The primary breadwinner for his ailing mother and two younger brothers since his father’s death a year ago, the solemn boy earns about Rs125 ($5) a day from his dawn foraging.
After three hours at the landfill, Luvkush hurries back to the dark room over a cowshed where his family sleeps. He bathes, changes clothes, and rushes to a government school, where he is studying alongside kids whose parents have coveted jobs as drivers or dairy labourers.
With a knack for maths and Sanskrit, Luvkush, whose family migrated to New Delhi from the impoverished state of Bihar before his father died, sees his studies as the ticket to a life away from garbage.
“I am third in my class,” he says quietly, a proud smile cracking over his otherwise serious face. “I want to do computers.”
New Delhi has about 40,000 waste-pickers who survive by foraging for recyclables in the more than 8,000 tons of garbage the city generates each day. Of these waste-pickers, around 20 per cent are children.
Until recently, studying in a state school was nearly impossible for these kids, whose parents are mostly illiterate migrants from India’s poorest states or neighbouring Bangladesh. But over the past four years, some 2,000 waste-pickers’ children – many working as waste-pickers themselves – have been enrolled in government schools, through the efforts of Chintan, a non-profit group, supported by the Global Fund for Children, with which the Financial Times is partnering for this year’s Seasonal Appeal.
“This is the first time anyone in their family has set foot in a school,” says Bharati Chaturvedi, who founded Chintan to organise waste-pickers to fight for better work conditions. “Nobody knows how to get into school, and they are very intimidated by processes and procedures.”
Chintan initially held its own informal classes to help the community’s children with basic literacy. But the organisation soon began pushing to get kids into mainstream government schools. “It’s not very high quality teaching,” Ms Chaturvedi says. “But they teach you to socialise with people from other communities, and they teach you to be assertive. You get a formal certificate that you can show to anyone.”
Previously, most schools rebuffed waste-pickers’ often scruffy children on the grounds that they could not produce birth certificates, which many poor Indians, especially from rural areas, do not have. But Chintan helps parents prepare sworn affidavits of their school-age children’s birthdays, which city schools accept as alternatives to birth certificates.
“Most parents want their kids to go to school, and do something much better, but the schools would not admit them,” says Kasim Ali, whose 14-year-old grand-daughter, Sitara, entered school four years ago, with Chintan’s help.
For older children like Sitara with little or no education, Chintan runs four informal schools, where they use interactive, creative techniques to teach remedial reading and maths. After attending the informal classes for a year, most kids are able join the government schools at an age-appropriate level.
Even after they start formal education, many kids, like Kajal, 12, continue to attend Chintan’s classes to supplement their lessons at state schools, where teaching is still by rote and questions are discouraged. “At the government school, they just tell us to be quiet,” says Kajal.
Going to school does not necessarily stop kids from scavenging in the landfill to earn desperately needed money for their families. At the top of her class, Kajal, one of six children, still spends two evenings every week hunting on the garbage mountain for wood and plastic to sell – a secret she carefully guards from her school friends. “My father is a drunk and doesn’t contribute to the family, so what else can I do?” she asks.
But education is beginning to change children’s aspirations – and help them see beyond the mountain of rubbish that overshadows their lives. Ayub, 10, entered school for the first time in April, after Chintan teachers persuaded his reluctant parents that it was worth forgoing the child’s earnings. Now, Ayub has a dream of a new career: “I want to be a teacher,” he says.
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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.