The future of the rag-pickers


According to a piece in the Guardian, it seems that authorities in Delhi are piloting a project to tackle the city’s enormous waste problem but the solution may affect those whose livelihood depends on it. Currently, waste is sorted manually by an informal army of men, women and children and then passed on to middle-men to sell or recycle. Three new plants (one at Ghazipur) will, it is hoped, sort the 8000 tonnes of Delhi’s daily waste automatically. It is estimated that more than 50,000 people work in this informal sector (known as ‘rag-pickers’) in and around the capital. The work is terrible and dangerous but for a significant section of the transient population of one of the world’s fastest growing cities, it is at least a living.

Over the years, I’ve photographed and written about many of the city’s rag pickers who exist in a twilight, Dickensian world ignored by almost everyone, quietly making the city function in a most human but terrible way.



India – New Delhi – Buddhi Lal, 30, a rag-picker, works before dawn collecting refuse to recycle and resell. On a good day he can make perhaps Rs150-200


India – New Delhi – Buddhi Lal, 30, a rag-picker with his small children playing behind him on the pavement, sorts the refuse that he has collected during his dawn round to sell


India – New Delhi – A child rag-picker collecting plastic bottles (and anything else he can scavenge) from the carriage of a train at New Delhi Railway station


India – Delhi – A child rag-picker cleans his fingernail with an old razor blade at a rubbish depot in Old Delhi


India – Delhi – A boy scavenger on the Yamuna River on a home-made raft of sacking and polystyrene. By dragging a magnet through the filthy water he collects scrap metal to sell





London sees a rise in rough sleepers

UK – London – Friends, Claire, 36 and Edwin, 61, both homeless, talk after a soup run organised by a Christian Charity on the Strand


The Broadway Homeless charity have just reported that London has seen a 43% increase on people sleeping rough in the capital from last year. The only glimmer of home in this figure is that 70% of those aren’t sleeping out for the second night due largely to the actions of charities like Broadway and increased work from outreach teams. This, despite Boris Johnson’s pre-election pledge to ‘end rough sleeping by 2012’. According to a Guardian report in April this year, £5m – underwritten by central government – was diverted from the Mayor’s budget for rough sleepers, to ‘other purposes’. Expect worse to come if proposals to remove housing benefit for under 25’s come to fruition.

There is a clear link between London’s rents becoming more and more unaffordable for large sections of the population and these figures. London is often referred to as a divided city. It isn’t. It is now many cities. Extraordinarily wealth in the centre, guarded and cosseted by technology and private security (tested and honed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan) swimming in an ocean of increasing poverty – material and aspirational – that finds its dreams impossible. All of this underwritten by a facetious, poisonous narrative of unfulfilled personal responsibility and fecklessness.

According to Stuart Hall, cities of the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries were monuments to Imperial power: motors of industrial production and trade. Globalisation has significantly reshaped London and the people sleeping on its streets (or the thousands a breath away from it) as inconvenient dislocations from an industrial to a service economy dictated to by modern day robber barons fixated on personal wealth and profit. I write so much about the Developing World, Delhi in particular (and recently Athens) that it is easy to neglect what is literally under my feet.



Suffer little children

According to NATO’s senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, children are safer in Kabul than in Glasgow.

Of course the statement is nonsense – the NATO propaganda machine in full spin mode – but he actually raises some interesting points.

There is appalling child poverty in Glasgow (as there is in much of the UK) but little from bombs or direct warfare. As Justin Forsyth from the NGO Save the Children put it, one in four children living in Afghanistan will die before they reach the age of five.

“Last year was the deadliest for children since late 2001, with more than a thousand killed because of the conflict” and “a staggering 850 children die every day, many from easily preventable diseases such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, or because they are malnourished”.

Actually, what Sedwill meant was that significant and direct violence was not the greatest risk for (especially) Kabul’s children despite them living on the edge of a live war zone. In other respects of course Kabul children illustrate perfectly the issues of young lives in the Developing World. They are forced by and large to forego what a childhood looks like to us.

A significant issue that divides children in Glasgow and Kabul is work and Afghanistan has a large proportion of working children. The development of the idea of childhood as we know in the West is a product of the Enlightenment and Victorian social reform. For many of the world’s children, work is not a matter of choice and going to school is an unaffordable dream. Families send their children to work through economic necessity not profit. We may find this deeply unpalatable but the world is as it is, not as we wish it to be. In recognition of this situation, there are small scale moves to unionise child workers and give those who have no choice, a voice and some rudimentary protection. The National Movement of Street Boys and Girls in Brazil is one example, there is another in Delhi. A basic conviction of these movements is that through community participation and the development of democratic practice, poverty can be challenged. All of these schemes involve lengthy intervention by social workers but represent a real-life (if partial) solution to the reality of working children.

Here are some pictures from Kabul and Delhi that illustrate the issues…

Afghanistan - Kabul - a boy sells snacks and drinks on a stall in the street with his mother
Afghanistan - Kabul - A child mechanic welds a metal frame in a car breaker's yard
India - New Delhi - A child worker scavenges for plastic to recycle (and sell) from a train carriage in New Delhi Railway Station
India - Delhi - A meeting of a Child Trades Union on the streets facilitated by adult outreach/social workers

Digging for a Dollar a day

Amidst all the hullaballoo about building the Commonwealth Games venues in Delhi, there has been much talk of corruption, mismanagement and chaos. All true I’m sure but I just read an interesting article by Amanda Hodge in the Australian who makes a very good point when she says:

“But those who come to Delhi must also remember that a vast number of people in this host city live on less than $2 a day. Dirty toilets, poorly fitted doors, faulty electricity and taps are not an issue for people who have no bathroom, running water or power”.

I couldn’t agree more. Whatever the logic of the Commonwealth Games (a pointless colonial anachronism if ever there was one) you can’t blame the poor who have actually borne the brunt of the construction (in terms of both building and eviction) for not making a job worthy of ‘star athletes’. In that sense (and that sense only) I agree with Lalit Bhanot who said that the unfinished state of some of the flats at the athletes’ village was simply a matter of “differing perceptions”.

I couldn’t care less for the Commonwealth Games (nor for the Olympics coming to the UK for that matter) – all corporate machination as far as I am concerned – but I do hope that people coming to Delhi get to see beyond the show and the cracks and the security. If they got to meet the people on a dollar a day – most of the people of Delhi – that would be a cultural exchange more valuable than any sporting event.

India - New Delhi - Day labourers take a tea break in a trench during construction works for the Commonwealth Games