GUWAHATI, Aug 6 - In India, ragpickers are the vital link in the waste management system between the collection and disposal of waste. It has been observed that these ragpickers are mostly immigrants coming from different parts of the country because the rural economy has not been able to sustain them and unfortunately they are also the most ignored.
In the gateway to the Northeast too the ragpickers handling the waste are invisible, low profile and are not acknowledged by the system in proportion to their contribution.
Ragpicking is a form of child labour and one of the most inferior economic activities in the urban informal sector. In view of the pathetic situation of the ragpickers in this capital city, Care Assam, since its inception has focused on improving the way of living and health of the ragpickers. According to Pradip Baishya, president of Care Assam, ragpicking is undertaken by children belonging to the very weaker sections of the society who are unskilled and resort to this dangerous and hazardous livelihood to support their families.
�Ragpicking is a profession mostly dominated by children between the age 6 to 15 years who do not have any other skill and thus by way of rag collection contribute to household income or own survival. These are mainly children of slum dwellers and poor people. Some of them are abandoned or runway children,� said Baishya who is also a faculty member of Assam Engineering College.
Baishya further said that very little work has been done on the situation of the child ragpickers here.
It is a common in Guwahati to see the children busy collecting materials from garbage dumps of leftover food, paper, rags, tin, iron, plastic, glass, etc. and pick items worth recycling. �These individuals, mostly children run a high health risk as most of them wander bare feet without proper gear and ignorant of the health hazards they are exposed to. Children walk bare-foot through rancid rubbish, dodging rusty razor blades, used syringes, broken bottles and discarded medicines, searching for any scrap which can be recycled,� pointed out Baishya, adding that respiratory diseases, malaria and tuberculosis are very common among the ragpickers.
It needs to be mentioned that Care Assam has organised a few health awareness camp for ragpickers here. The organisation has been stressing on health programmes for the ragpickers and training on handling of waste. �There is need for training of the ragpickers so that they can avoid the health hazards,� said Baishya.
Care Assam has reached out to 250 ragpickers by way of preliminary health examinations and supplying masks, gloves and basic medicines.
�These camps are just a tip of the ice berg in proportion to the contribution which these children put into the system. Rag pickers work as early as 4 am in the competition to collect the best from the waste,� mentioned Baishya.
With innumerable types of segregations for plastics, paper, glass and metals, the ragpickers also have to wash and clean them at times to make them acceptable by the scrap buyer. They work more than 10 hours walking an average 10 kms a day carrying heavy loads.
Although ragpickers have a huge contribution in keeping the cities cleaner and also reducing the burden on municipal corporations, very little has been done directly towards their wellbeing.
Studies on ragpickers have been done at the international and national level and several stories and documentaries published. But very little support has come through to the system to offer them better livelihoods. Part of the money earned from recyclables also goes towards a cut for middlemen making life even more difficult for the ragpickers.
Care Assam is planning an initiative called REAP (Ragpickers Education and Awareness Programme) to support rag picking children for education.
�With preliminary coaching, these underprivileged children could be admitted to schools and eventually join mainstream education. The objective is to educate these children to a level when they can share this knowledge with their family and take up different occupations in the future. This could give some of these children an opportunity to bloom and live their childhood. It could potentially bring out so many unknown talents among them which could be encouraging for others,� revealed Baishya, adding that the role of ragpickers in the system should be recognised.