Muskan, standing beside her garbage cart
By Aditi Tandon
Chandigarh, October 7, 2007: Ahead of the festival season, India’s most planned city is preparing to celebrate. But in its largest slum, Muskan, 12, and her gang of reed-thin children are bracing for the worst period of the year when the city will litter more mindlessly than it normally does and they, with their bare, tender hands, will have to wipe it clean.
For a child, it’s no easy job to be a garbage collector – scouring through heaps of waste, sifting from it anything of value and cautiously disposing off the rest. But in this city, which recently made it to the shortlist of UNESCO’s world heritage sites, at least 200 children, many below 14, are engaged in one of the most hazardous occupations of our times.
Inheritance of loss
Muskan (which means smile) has seen many Diwalis but never celebrated one. She can’t remember a single day when she didn’t have to haul her cart through the 200 households in a faraway locality, going door-to-door to collect garbage, before cycling off to a state-run garbage collection centre.
Here, she spends hours segregating the waste with bare hands before disposing it off. For this she makes less than Re.1 per day, per household. One family unit in Chandigarh – the city with the highest per capita income in India – pays Rs 10 to 50 per month for disposing of its refuse.
“I hate it here but my parents won’t let me do anything else. They need money to feed a family of 13. I have to support them. Often on the way to work at 7 am, I see children my age cycling to school and I fancy myself among them” says the little one, showing her hands that have rotted because of years of groping in the senselessly disposed off waste.
Muskan spends hours segregating the garbage with bare hands before disposing it off. For this she makes less than Re.1 per day, per household.
Skin lesions are not the only ailment waste pickers suffer from. With flies, mosquitoes and rodents all around, deadly diseases like dengue and malaria are always a threat. Muskan, is aware of this, although she hesitates to admit it in as many words. But her brothers, Sameer, 11, and Sunny, 13, are vocal and brazen about their future.
“No one will even shed a tear if we die. Don’t ask us why we don’t go to school. Ask us how we survive on a daily dose of dirt and disdain,” they say, unaware of the first anniversary of modified Child Labour (Prevention and Regulation) Act passed last year.
In Chandigarh, 360-tonnes of garbage is collected daily. The quantity quadruples in the run up to Diwali, hitting the peak on the D-Day. Of the total waste collected every day, 69.67 percent is organic, 20 per cent inorganic.
When the government formulated the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules in 2000, which required door-to-door garbage collection instead of secondary collections from points across the city, the local civic body did not institutionalize the system of solid waste management. It left waste collection and disposal in private hands.
In the absence of regulations, some 1,000 waste collectors mushroomed within a month. Among them were hundreds of children like Muskan, driven to a dangerous occupation by poverty.
Children, State and the Law
A year after the Child Labour Prevention Act was modified, there has been no survey to determine the number of child labourers in the city.
Soon after the Act was passed, the administration raided some restaurants and roadside dhabas to create some awareness. But since then, there has been no systematic follow-up action.
In one year, just one person has been charge sheeted for employing child labourers; no one has been fined or convicted. The Act provides for one-year imprisonment and Rs 10,000 fine as punishment for violation.
There is an urgent need to provide succor to these children. Innocence cannot be allowed to rot in heaps of garbage forever.