Lingering Around For Hunger


Bhavani on her way

Walking past the heaps of garbage, which produces pungent smelling hillocks on either side, 13-year-old S. Bhavani, fearlessly moves around collecting scraps in the landfill site of Kodungaiyur. With a single glove and a pair of grubby shoes, she leads the way for the reporter towards one of the main points, where several others too hurriedly engaged in a labour, which happened to be an inferior economic activity in the urban informal sector. The recycling industry has flourished over the years with an increasing number of rag pickers, belonging to different age groups.

Toiling hard under the scorching heat with no proper meals, the teenager was reluctant to open up about her life inside the vast 300 acres of “treasure trove”, which is considered to be the largest dump yard in the city of Chennai. With hundreds of families, depending primarily on the income obtained from picking up the waste, which has recycle value, the dump yard is the breeding ground of innumerable assets, which include used plastics, tins and bottles. As they get 3 to 4 rupees for every plastic bottle, they manage to earn 300 to 500 rupees in a day

This in fact, accelerated the number of rag picking children who became school dropouts to support their families.

Kodungaiyur dump yard

Akash who left the school at the age of fourteen carried a gunny bag on his shoulder. Accompanied by his sister who is in her late teens, he picks up waste bottles and tins to run his family. His father, who is an alcoholic, never bothers about his studies. By working from dawn to dusk, he earns a living, manages to save a bit to buy his favourite motorcycle.

Though rag picking by children is nothing other than child labour, there are no substantial efforts by the government to curb the tendency. Further, there is no effective implementation of law, which outlines rag picking as one among the 63 other activities banned under Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) (A) Bill, 2012. With no significant consideration for the rights of children which also include the right to education, the life of children living beside the dump yards are at peril with continuous exposure to the toxic waste. However, what seemingly hazardous, happen to be of lesser implication compared to the stark reality yet to be unveiled.

It was a small sachet of Ganja that a young man carried opened up a plethora of issues, which otherwise would have been conveniently hidden in the colossal graveyard of garbage. He simply took it from the pocket and it was hardly 100 gm. On seeing this, Malar, a middle aged rag picker shooed him away but it was well captured.

A warning or what!

With a little persuasion, John said that there were many drug dealers outside the dump yard. The distributors collect the material mostly from Salem and Ambattur areas and supply it to those who demand. It appears as though only men are addicted to drugs, but a tête-à-tête with a boy at the dump yard has proved otherwise. Under the condition of anonymity, he uttered that even children below the age of 18 are widely using drugs.

Though the reporter was unable to get in touch with the boys who consume drugs, the search for a Non Governmental Organization who works for the street children provided relevant information regarding the drug addiction of rag picking children.

Arunodhaya is a centre for street and working children located in R R Nagar, Kodungaiyur. Together with the Chennai Corporation, they started a shelter home for boys in 2013. According to R Vasantha, project coordinator and caretaker of the Chennai Corporation shelter, 178 children have been rescued so far. Last year, Arunodhaya has rehabilitated 41 rag pickers from the Kodungaiyur dump yard.

Speaking about the drug addiction, Vasantha shared the stories of Shiva Kumar and Guhan, child rag pickers at the Kodungaiyur landfill. Though the workers at NGO rescued them, the duo currently lives with their families.

Guhan who was addicted to alcohol, ran away from the shelter home and lives with his father. According to Chelammal, the Councillor at Arunodhaya, he still goes to dump yard to pick bottles for earning money. However, she has undertaken measures to trace him out with the help of security guards at the dump yard and the child help line. She also shared the story of an eight-year-old child who drinks three bottles of alcohol and sleeps in his home all throughout the day. He was brought to the shelter home and with proper treatment, he was back into normalcy.

With his alcoholic and abusive mother, Shiva Kumar, whose father has died, strives hard to make a living. Though he wishes to continue his education, his mother has compelled him to work. As she threatens to commit suicide, the seventh standard boy does not have any option left, other than to work. Vasantha thinks that he should pass at least eighth standard, so that he can apply for a driving licence later, to earn a living.

Initially, when the shelter home began its functioning, 99 percent of the admitted children were addicted to drugs. They consumed Mava, Ganja, Tulip and most of them were alcoholics as well. However, with better treatment and proper awareness, the workers at the shelter home were able to bring a phenomenal change in the children.

The habits of consuming drugs and alcohol are prevalent among rag picking children. Initially, they consume it to get rid of the foul smell of the dump yard and to get intoxicated. Gradually, they became vulnerable to use drugs like Ganja and Tulip. The easy access to the drugs in and around the dump yard aggravates the scenario. Soon, they wish to go to dump yard only to get Ganja. Vasantha has also said that the children are getting the drugs even at 50 rupees. They pick the garbage for 300 rupees and then spent it for the drugs. There were also complaints from the residents of the street regarding the misbehaviour of the drug addicted children as they lay intoxicated on the road sides.

Almost half of the children in the shelter home don’t have families. The broken family relationship in fact drives the children to drugs. Many a times, the financial problems in the families compels the children to rag picking and then later to drugs. The alcoholic parents also play a crucial part in forcing children to become dropouts. The rehabilitated rag picking children are given intensive awareness and treatment to bring back to normal life. The NGO takes the initiate to enrol them in schools and only when they realise he is able to live a normal life, allows him to go back to his family.

Though Arunodhaya does a remarkable work in bringing back the children, the fund allocation towards the rehabilitation of street children is significantly low.  As the school enrolment and daily expenses cost a considerable amount of money, the shelter home finds it difficult to meet the expenses. With 30 children currently living under the shelter, it receives only 22 rupees per day for a child. This is, in fact, 3 rupees less than the previous year budget allocation which paid 25 rupees for a child.

As the expense exceeds the budget, the workers at NGO are trying to get sponsors for the admission expenses of children. The normal school kit which includes uniform, school bag and books cost around 2500 rupees for a child. As most of the children wish to continue their studies, Arunodhaya is trying to fund their expenses.

However, the negligence of the government is evident in the allocation of money. The Greater Chennai Corporation grants money once in three months. However, the corporation has not provided the money for the last three quarters. This fund which amounts to a six digit number has consequentially affected the regular functioning of the organization.  Nevertheless, Virgil D’sami, executive director at Arunodhaya, manages despite the laxity of the government.

Rag picking by children is another form of child labour. As it is a voluntary act taken up by the children for their survival and for supplementing the family, it is not even considered as a social evil. The government has not taken strong initiatives to counter the issue. Further, the reluctance of the government to issue adequate funds for the rehabilitation of the rag picking children reflects the inefficiency of the government to tackle the problem.  This has resulted in the less number of projects meant for the protection of street children making children susceptible to the external environment. By de facto, the inability of the government to restrain rag picking has indirectly helped in making them prone to drugs.


A peep into the life of child rag pickers at Kodungaiyur dump yard:-


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