What dangers do the rag pickers face?
They are exposed to medical waste and all kinds of noxious gases. And they burn a lot of e-waste—computers and circuit boards—just to extract copper, because copper will sell for much more than plastic. This creates noxious fumes they are exposed to.
The three boys we followed do not have any idea of protection. They go barefoot and work without gloves. Even if they fell sick, they wouldn’t realize that it was because of what they are doing.
Some of the older rag pickers suffer from respiratory problems and tuberculosis is very common. Many develop Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Why is there so little protection?
Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Mumbai, is a huge recycling industry, but it all exists in an unregulated manner. They do not have licenses and they have pathetic working conditions.
Some 50 percent of Dharavi exists without any kind of legal sanction and yet rag pickers and scrap dealers there are recycling almost 80 percent of Bombay’s waste.
So here is the contradiction: they are operating in an illegal manner, but they are still providing a lot to our society. But whenever they try to assert themselves and demand certain rights, they are told by the authorities that they do not have any legal rights.
What about the official waste management system, could it cope with the problem?
Sadly in major cities in India we do not have good waste management policies. All the waste ends up in landfills, but there is no idea of recycling, no one is trying to separate the plastic from the biodegradable stuff.
All that the municipal corporations do is dump it, and once landfills become saturated they just close them and turn them into some kind of real estate. But the land is still contaminated.
Rag Pickers of India
Written: October 22, 1999
First Online: October 20, 2006
Page Last Updated: January 11, 2018
What do illiterate, unskilled people do in India that do not want or cannot beg for a living?
They pick trash.
Also, many Indian states are now (year 1999) enforcing anti-begging laws and hence even the beggars have opted for rag-picking to sustain themselves.
Trash Picking Profession of India
Most of the rag-pickers are extremely poor, illiterate, and belong to rural immigrant families. Many commence their profession at the young age of five to eight years. Most of them never attend any school or have any formal education. Most of their families are in need of extra incomes from these young children (see: ). While they are collecting rags they are subjected to chemical poisons and infections. Because of malnutrition they suffer from retarded growth and anemia. The rag pickers are very susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis and cancer due to their exposure to hazardous materials.
© K. L. Kamat
Rag-pickers Start Young
In most cases, there are middlemen who engage these children. They are required to collect, bottles, plastic, metal parts, glass pieces and alike. They also collect food-waste for their consumption. If found in access they share it with their friends and the elders. The middlemen pocket the major share of the sales and pays only paltry to the youngsters. As earning members of the family they do not heed much to the elders of the family's advice. They commence chewing and smoking tobacco. Soon they become addicted to alcohols and then they switch to hard liquors. They even do not refrain from taking the drugs. They have free sex with street walkers and hence become victims of AIDS.
© K. L. Kamat
Rag-picking in Urban India
Anatomy of a Rehabilitation Initiative
The various (state, central and city) Governments collect lot of taxes on the pretext of rehabilitating the rag-pickers. Unfortunately that amount is squandered away in the most unimaginative of the ways. A typical "Rag-pickers Rehab. Project" planned by a government and non-government agency starts this way: they rent out a huge building, furnish it with expensive furniture; appoint lots of office-bearers and conduct educational classes during fixed timings. To these rag-pickers they aim to teach state, national and international languages together with mathematics! But in reality they learn only abusive languages. Many times they fight very fierce verbal and physical abuse by their colleagues.
Some of of the rag-pickers get to be treated like famous stars on Christmas and New Year's days by celebrities who offer them new clothes and sweets before television cameras.
List of Pictures Showing Rag-pickers
- Begging Profession in India -- Kamat on why people beg in India, their modus operandi, their social and love life. He wonders whether feeding the beggars keeps the profession alive
- People of India -- Wide ranging topics and pictures depicting the common and uncommon communities of India; their professions, life-styles, and values.