Against All Odds — Transforming a Community of Ragpickers, One Child at a Time

A woman from east India dedicates her life to the children of ragpickers in the hope that they will grow up to be change agents in their community.

BY DEBORAH M., INDIA CONTENT AND COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST | PHOTOS COURTESY OF HOPE CENTER


Clichéd Attitude Toward the Role of a Woman

Basanti at the Hope Center.

At first glance, Basanti seems like a quiet, timid person due to her stature. One could easily categorize her role in society as the dutiful wife and doting mother. Nothing more.

And that is exactly how she was looked upon for many years in the community of ragpickers where she lived and worked at the Hope Center.

“Being a woman, I faced immense challenges in the initial days, as our society doesn’t give any importance to women,” Basanti recalls, looking back on the 15-plus years since she stepped into the role of a Child Champion.

“It only knows this — that the role of the woman is restricted to the house. The mindset is that education is not important for a female, but her role is only to manage the house chores. For a woman surrounded by such social mores, to stand up, to fight for her rights is very difficult.”

Taking Up the Challenge

Challenged by her spiritual mentor to do something for God, Basanti started working at the Hope Center soon after her graduation from university. Witnessing firsthand the commitment of the Hope Center Director investing in the lives of the children, Basanti was inspired to follow the same path.

Being a teacher, the thought I had in my mind, which I still have, is that to guide a child in the right direction, you have to begin to make the effort yourself,” says Basanti. “This is not my responsibility alone, but children and their parents, all of us, need to make the effort collectively. This will help us in developing children to be successful in the future.”

At the Hope Center, children have a chance to play and learn.

“When you grow up in a situation of poverty, you see poverty, you live poverty, and you know how people living in poverty are going to react,” says Salmon. “So, you know how to approach that and how to come up with solutions. When you have lived in poverty along with the people, you speak the same language and are invested in the situation. They can trust you and see in you someone who can help them take the steps needed to move out of poverty.”

Walking Through Narrow Paths and Narrow Minds

In the initial days of her time as a Child Champion at the Hope Center, Basanti says that the parents didn’t consider the importance of a lady teacher teaching their children. She did not expect to be respected much, but says, “Things were even worse.”

The only comments Basanti received were, “Look, Madam has come,” or “She has come all dressed up,” and “Look, there she goes.”

Even worse were the looks filled with hate and the stares she would get from the men. Basanti had to bear it all.

“Sometimes, it was even unthinkable to walk down the narrow alleyways — to hear these words being spoken, or to be looked at with bad intent,” says Basanti. “But I had one wish and one goal: to bring about change in the society.”

The Mothers’ Burden

Basanti lives in a flat above the Hope Center which is located in the heart of a community of ragpickers.

The narrow paths that a single vehicle can barely pass through are muddy even in the dry months. With no drainage system, wastewater runs through the alleyways, soaking any dry patch it finds on its way.

 

In the midst of this labyrinth are piles of trash waiting to be sorted through for items to be sold to the recyclers.

You’ll find the women of the community working in these piles of rubbish throughout the day just to put food on the table for their family. Most fathers have turned to alcoholism, and the financial burden is shouldered by the mothers alone.

As the majority of the adults themselves are uneducated, not much emphasis is given to children’s education.

Changing the Generational Mindset

In 2007, Basanti began her journey as a Child Champion.

Reflecting on the past, she says, “The 15 years just didn’t pass by. Every day was an effort to bring about a change. Today where I am, and the changes I see in society wasn’t how it used to be.”

With the majority of the community of ragpickers being uneducated, Basanti has to battle many kinds of ignorance. Ignorance about how to live right and what things are essential for life, for example. The basic principles of how to live and behave as a good citizen are not passed from one generation to the next.

I could not always change that generation,” says Basanti. “But for the new generation, the children, we can teach them something, change their mindset, so that in future, they do not follow the same mindset as the older generations. That’s why I am serving among the children, and despite the challenges, I never accepted defeat. I prayed and God showed me the way.”

Guidance From Above

Faced with these challenges, Basanti looked to God for strength and guidance. God reminded her that she felt weak surrounded by challenges because she was trying to do everything in her own strength.

God also showed her that her weakness was nothing physical, but that she needed to increase her influence. She was alone so she needed to collaborate with others.

“I needed others to join me in reaching my goal,” says Basanti, “so that I could bring about a change in the community and to bring about a change in their lives.”

In Her Weakness Came Strength Through Collaboration

“The children wanted to study, but they were rejected by their families and society,” says Basanti, recalling her new collaborative approach. “There were also those women who wanted to do something for their children but who could not speak up due to societal norms. I thought to connect with the children and their mothers. I built a rapport with the children, and through them I started visiting their mothers, as their fathers still hadn’t accepted my role.”

Meeting with women from the community.

As she started communicating with the mothers more often, her home visits became more frequent. However, she still faced stiff opposition from the fathers.

During home visits, if a male family member was in the house, he would immediately leave since he didn’t even want to see Basanti. And if she was already in the house, he would not show any desire to enter the home.

For a long time, Basanti never had the opportunity to sit down with both the mother and father together to discuss with them how to create a path toward a better future for their children.

Slowly but surely, as Basanti continued her interaction with the mothers, they began to understand that education can give their children a better life. In her conversations with them she encouraged them to be courageous and, for the sake of their children, to talk to their husbands.

They may not listen to you today, tomorrow, or even the next day,” Basanti told the mothers. “But I have full confidence that when you keep requesting their support, they will definitely understand it.”

The Change That Followed

Meanwhile at the Hope Center, Basanti continued her work as a Child Champion.

As a teacher she helped the children, tutoring them in their studies. As a counselor, she listened to their problems. As a friend, she shared in their joys and sorrows, and prayed for them.

Basanti says she feels happy when the children share their problems and challenges with her.

Basanti serves as counselor and friend to the students she teaches.

“It brings me joy when I spend time with the children, playing and laughing with them.”

And through her persistence, she began to see attitudes change in the community.

Today I see a great change in the society,” Basanti says. “The same father who would walk out when I visited their home, or who would say unpleasant things about me — who would not accept me for who I am and whom I was serving — today, those same fathers stand by me and support me in this work.

Most children in the community of ragpickers don’t get the opportunity to study because they have to work and end up dropping out of school. Basanti is glad that she is a part of a team helping the children reach their goals.

Since working at the Hope Center, Basanti says she has learned to advocate more strongly for the right to education for each child.

Her prayer is that, through the Hope Center, the children will experience the love of God, become good citizens, make the nation proud, live good lives, and bring honor to their parents.

Basanti, the Child Champion

For Basanti, her journey as a Child Champion has had its fair share of challenges. But she is a testament to the fruits of faithfulness.

Basanti sums up her role as a Child Champion with these words:

“Because I’m a Child Champion, I can be with the children and be their friend. I’m not just a teacher, but I’m also a learner. I still have to learn from them.”

A Message for Sponsors

Basanti was eager to share a message with all the sponsors of the children she works with.

I want to say many thanks to the sponsors, because without their prayers and support we cannot run the Hope Center. Because of their prayers and support, the children are with us and because of that, we are Child Champions. I thank you and appreciate your help and prayers. Please remember us and this community [we serve] in your prayers.”

A Message of Hope to Women

And to women everywhere facing the same struggles, she says, “I want to give this message to those sisters who have given up hope, who have accepted defeat in their lives, those who feel they cannot accomplish anything in their lives, those who feel rejected.

I tell them, you may be rejected, but know this, that this too shall pass. A day will come when you will be able to shine brightly in society. Don’t lose courage; through you a change will come in society. Always remind yourself of that.”

When you sponsor a child, you are also empowering Child Champions like Basanti. Your sponsorship will help them reach out to children throughout the community and give them hope.

Who Are Ragpickers?

Ragpicker [ rag-pik-er ] noun : a person who picks up rags and other waste material from the streets, refuse heaps, etc., for a livelihood. Source *

This dictionary definition may immediately bring to mind children in developing nations with dirty clothes and scruffy hair, rummaging through a dumpster or heaps of trash with their bare hands.

While this is often the case, rag picking is not restricted to children alone or confined to garbage dumps.

Ragpickers in India

In India, rag picking is a form of day labor where adults and children alike collect trash from the streets, railway tracks, rivers, open drains, outside shops, or anywhere they can find it, and sell any recyclable material to scrap dealers.

Waste materials that can be reused consist of newspapers, cardboard, plastic bottles, glass, metal scraps, rags and so on.

The waste management systems of towns and cities rely heavily on the work of the roughly 4 million ragpickers in India. These ragpickers work without any minimum wage, health insurance, or basic protective gear. Yet, they are the backbone of traditional waste management for most cities and towns in India, which generate more than 60 million tons of waste annually. Source *

The Hard Realities of Rag Picking

A 2021 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India study of 9,300 Safai Sathis, or waste pickers, in 14 cities across 10 Indian states gives us insight into the circumstances of these workers. Source †

Of those surveyed:

  • Around 65% reported having no formal education.
  • More than half worked as itinerant waste pickers, street sweepers, and waste pickers at a landfill. Socially disadvantaged groups and those with no formal education were more heavily concentrated in such informal work.
  • Seven in 10 have a monthly household income of less than 10,000 rupees ($121); Only 4% reported earning more than 20,000 rupees ($242) a month.
  • Only half reported owning a ration card. (A ration card is an official document issued to eligible households in India to purchase subsidised food grain.)
  • Only 60% have access to sanitation facilities like toilets.

Each ragpicker’s story is unique, but what most have in common is that they migrated from other states, having experienced acute poverty at some point in their lives. This compelled them to take up rag picking as a means of livelihood.

In some families, it is the men who go out to collect the waste, while the women sort waste at home, joined by their children. In other families, the women are out 12 hours a day collecting waste, while the men separate the waste according to the price of the items.

The Stigma and the Cost of Rag Picking

Ragpickers are often held in low regard. Frequently looked upon with suspicion and faced with harassment, ragpickers are victims of verbal and physical abuse.

Rag picking takes a toll in other ways as well.

Sorting waste without any protective gear is a hazardous task. Very few municipalities mandate the separation of trash in households, and all waste products end up in a single bin. When ragpickers collect waste, they are exposed to soiled diapers, sanitary pads, broken glass, cans, and other items that leave them vulnerable to cuts and infections.

With low incomes, high health risk, social exclusion, and no recognition for their contributions toward waste management, breaking out of the cycle of poverty seems a distant dream for ragpickers and their children in generations to come.

Improving the Well-Being of Ragpickers

However, ragpickers do have advocates working to help them.

Basic changes like ration cards and official recognition as municipal employees with identity cards to ensure minimum wages would help greatly improve the lives of the rag picking community.

Even simple equipment like long smart-grabber tools for picking through trash without touching it would improve their safety. And opportunities to advance toward less hazardous and better paying jobs are much needed.

Hope Centers located in the heart of the community of ragpickers provide their children with nutritional supplements to build strong immune systems in their hazardous environments. And Child Champions like Basanti help them get the education they need to pave a way out of generational poverty and look to a better future.


*Ragpickers

†Baseline Analysis of the Socio-Economic Situation of Safai Sathis, UNDP India, 2021, pg 4.