How Dark Is Dark Enough?

by | Dec 30, 2019

Bindal river – Govind Ghar slum, Dehradun

Stepping over the bricks placed strategically on the puddles, we walked through the lane about two feet wide with double storeys built on both sides. It suddenly opened into a small courtyard where a few families were surprised to see us. Aao didi … aap bhi aag sek lo, kafi thand ho rahi hai ab to., said Reema ji*. We were in the slums of Govind Ghar, Dehradun. Reema ji is from Siwan, Bihar and works as a rag-picker in Dehradun for more than 10 years now.

What Am I Doing Here?

There’s a local organization that works on education of unprivileged kids and provides them with better opportunities for future. Their team goes to these slums and talks to families about getting their kids to attend school. The community knows them well and I, as a part of Waste Warriors, was there to see if we can identify the children who go for rag-picking and work with them somehow. Accompanying me were Divya and Binit from the other organization. We had started our Recce early in the morning, at 7:15 am. A girl, of about 10-12 years of age, carrying some cardboard boxes in her hand was walking towards a boy of similar age. He had a waste collection bag in his hand. As she was about to put the cardboard in the bag, they saw us, immediately left everything and ran as if it was a race on the opposite side from where we were coming. They vanished from the sight in a blink. As I was trying to collect my thoughts and understand what just happened, Binit told me that these kids think that we’re going to take them away and make them study.

On one hand, while there’s some progress with kids who have started coming to the school, others remain scared of us. They think we’re hampering their income by stopping them from begging and rag-picking.

As we moved ahead, similar incidents happened many times. I expressed that this seems impossible. No one was ready to talk to us. We hadn’t even met one child, leave alone the idea of buying waste from them. Binit said that there are a few kids from the school who go for rag-picking before and after school hours. He suggested to go to their house. I was hopeful again.

We entered another courtyard through a narrow lane, where two families live with 7 children who had just woken up. When we asked them why they haven’t gone for rag-picking today, they said they’ve stopped doing it. Their parents were okay with them doing the job but because it was associated with shame, they were not ready to accept. One of the elders pointed at Varun*, a 5 year old, telling that he is the smartest and brings more recyclables as compared to everyone else. Because of Binit’s presence, Varun refused the statement and disagreed. We left from there and met Priya* who goes to the education center now. She had stopped rag-picking. Priya came along and helped us meet a few kids who earned some money through rag-picking. She introduced a little boy to us who told that he collects waste and sells balloons. On asking what he does with the money, he said that he gives it to his mother.

Two boys appeared from behind and told him, "Jhooth kyu bol raha hai, saale!".
In reply, he said, "Tu chup kar, b******d".
The boys then said, "Didi, ye aur iska bhai in paiso se daaru cigarette peete hain."

Kids who were not even reaching my waist were addressing each other with words I had learnt only on attaining the height of 5 feet. I got to know that these children move in groups to collect waste and are found mostly around the big Nagar Nigam dustbins at Bindal river, Kanwali road or construction sites. Divya and Binit had seen them standing fearlessly in front of JCB excavators, to grab the plastic, not worried that they might hurt themselves. We moved towards a waste drop point of Nagar Nigam where waste from households of narrow lanes is collected using a tricycle. We met Prem* bhai, a Paryvaran Mitra and Laal*, a 11 year old, waiting for him to come with a waste bag. Binit and Divya were talking to Laal while I was with Prem bhai. As they introduced me to Laal, I could not help focusing on anything other than the smell of alcohol from him. He told that he’s here since 2 am and has already sold a few bags. I was dumbstruck at the sight and the smell. Meanwhile, Laal went back to fill his bag with waste.

Prem bhai dropping his waste in the Nagar Nigam dustbin, and Laal taking the recyclables

Walking from there, we reached the riverside of Bindal where a lady was washing clothes in the dirtiest water I’ve even seen. Four men were playing cards on the side and having alcohol. It was 8:30 am. A child was holding a broken piece of glass, trying to find something from the river. Two kids ran away on seeing us. I got to know that the metal bolts or coins in the river are magnified when glass is kept in flowing water and can be identified easily. 4th grade Physics!

Binit mentioned that one child who came to their center, had learnt that written things help. So he bought a register and asked someone in the school to write, My name is Ninu* and I’m fundraising for Christmas party in my school. Please give me some money.Now, instead of begging, he takes this register to people. They write their name, amount and sign. A couple of more kids have started doing this recently. Ninu made more than Rs. 800 on the first day itself. We shared a laugh at this, but is it funny?

None of the children were ready to accept that they still do rag-picking. How does one start in such a scenario? It is far more complex than it looked, which reminded me of ‘The Reductive Seduction Of Other People’s Problems’ by Courtney Martin that we had read during our training of India Fellow. I’m unsure now as to how Waste Warriors can do something here. In such darkness, will a little spark be able to bring about a change?

*Names changed to protect identity

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1 Comment

  1. Karthik Yadhati

    In such darkness, what will a little fire do?- A small matchstick is enough to burn down a forest Jaya.

    Since you have started, it will bring changes for sure. It takes time to bring changes, but impact will be there for sure.


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