In the Jahangirpuri area of Delhi, children and youngsters have big dreams that are stuck in the mire of garbage since their early childhood days. They have dreams to open mobile shops, an internet café, become a driver, an electrician, but all of their lives are tangled in collecting garbage, to feed themselves each day. They often feel stigmatised for doing such work, but that feeling is teamed with a sense of pride, for keeping the national capital clean. As Khurshid said “Without us (waste collectors) it would have been difficult for Delhi to maintain its cleanliness. We hope for a better life where we can feel equal to rest of the society.”
Every day waste collection earns Hasbul and Malik around Rs. 100 to splurge on an egg roll, mango shake, nahari (stew), and chowmein, something they consider a treat.
Maqsuuda said “I have never been to school. I am working since I was 5 years old. Pet paalna hai. School jaane ka time kahan hai (I need to earn for our survival. There is no time to go to school).” Her father doesn’t work, instead he is addicted to alcohol and takes money from Maqsuuda to buy alcohol. She along with her 10 year old brother Happyzul earns approximately INR 15000 per month. Sometimes her mother goes along with them for waste collection.
Bilal, Kareem, Ruleema and Asmat study in class 7. They sometimes collect waste from the sewer. Eid-Ul-Fir is one of those occasions when they work so that they are able to buy new clothes and go to movies. They collect bottles, plastic, metal items and sell these to the local waste seller. On a lucky day when they collect waste on the road they find wallets with money, mobile phone and other expensive items.
Bilal wants to become an electrician as his father doesn’t earn good money. Noor and Kareem want to open their own mobile shops.
Pawan, 15, dropped out after class 9, left his parents’ home in fit of rage. He says he likes this work because it gets him INR 6000 (89 USD) per month. He works from 8 am to 9 pm.
Akbar Ali, 17, says “this is a dirty job, but there is money in this work.” He wants to get married but fears he will not be accepted as his job is Kabaad ka Kaam (working with junk). He never went to school because his mother passed away when he was a just a child. His father was a rickshaw puller; an alcoholic and not concerned about his family. “Earlier I used to collect waste from the roads but that was dangerous as sometimes people or police called him a thief.” He now works 12 hours a day with a junk dealers and earns INR 9000 per month.
As a photographer, I have spent days to understand and document the lives of young waste collectors in the Jahangirpuri area of New Delhi. The parents and grandparents of these children, migrated mostly from parts of West Bengal to Delhi in search of a better livelihood. But ended up as ‘urban waste collectors’ where they earn enough just to survive. As Khurshid says “life is good if one ignores the stench of garbage.”
This article was originally published on DAJI, and republished with the permission of the photographer Rohit Jain.