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Waste pickers sidelined: Urban children perspective

The urban poor children are at a higher risk of climate change and disasters where the concept of “urban advantage” does not hold good for those living in low-income settlements, slums and streets, those who are orphans or have a physical disability.

“People look at us with disdain,” says eleven-year-old Arjun. Hands covered in cuts and sores, he continues to scrounge in the waist-high garbage pile, using his bare limbs for better leverage. His home, surrounded by dirt and decay, is just outside the city’s Municipal Corporation’s limits; the beautiful city of Udaipur, a paradise for tourists.

Rangaswamy colony, where Arjun lives is located at the foot of a hill, housing about 45-50 families. Poor sanitation, trash mountains and a sorry state of drainage and stormwater management make the area unlivable. Arjun lives here in a cramped house, along with seven of his family members. When it rains, the leaky roof makes this packed space even more uncomfortable. “Waterlogging is common, and water rises up to 3 feet during monsoons in the colony,” says Ashok, a resident.

Most people living here beg, or eke out a living through waste picking or as a labourer at a marble factory nearby.  With only three family members in a position to earn, Arjun too faced similar choices. He began waste picking on the streets of the city when very young. He would join his parents in street scrounging through the waste, facing regular harassment from the police and at times even the city residents. Now that he’s somewhat grown up, every afternoon after school, he goes on his own collecting household waste from door-to-door, removes all the valuable (marketable) recyclables and then dumps the rest of the trash in the local body’s dustbin. 

Arjun is just eleven years old. Yet, his slender shoulders bear the weight of a large gunny sack, where he hoards and carries the collected scrap, travelling long distances, every single day. Constant exposure to sharp objects and poisonous substances makes this child, like others like him, vulnerable to accidents, injuries and diseases. 

In this locality most of the children are illiterate, and very few attend school. Those who make an attempt, drop out before reaching high school. The colony does not have piped water supply, people depend on public standposts. Open defecation is the norm, as none of the households have toilets. 

It is not only their working environment that is unhygienic and disease prone; their living environment is equally bad. These children, thus, rank among the most vulnerable category of working children. A matter of great concern is that with urbanization, and the increased volume of waste material, the number of such children is growing. Not only are the boys and girls exposed to various types of health hazards but also face the risk to sexual harassment and physical exploitation by the people around.

“Children like Arjun are affected by the burden of diseases (heat stress, water and vector borne like malaria and jaundice), diminishing food security, increasing malnutrition, child trafficking and labour work due to loss of livelihoods of parents,” says Ashok. 

The present dismal state of urban basic services and livelihoods of the poor and marginalised sections, in particular, the children, is likely to be adversely affected further owing to climate change.  While Arjun’s occupation of waste picking is known to reduce greenhouse gases, and waste pickers from around the world have even represented the community at the UNFCCC conference, their plight in general, remains unchanged. Even though they offer a real, practical solution for climate change mitigation and waste management, that makes both economic and ecological sense, yet their living conditions remain appalling. 

This is the 4th field story captured by GEAG during the children-focused vulnerability assessment in Udaipur, Rajasthan. It is a part of the UNICEF India supported project titled ‘Building climate change and disaster resilience for urban children’.