Restoring ragpicking children

By Provashish Dutta, Compassion East India 

“I used to walk barefoot to the garbage dump to collect rags and scraps, and I wore torn clothes that people gave as alms when I begged,” says Hiralal, an 11-year-old boy from Odisha, India. “Seeing children going to school while I picked trash from the dump made me sad because I also wanted to study like them, but my future was collecting rags and begging.”

Hiralal’s small town is known as the beggar colony. The Schedule Caste, or “untouchables,” who live here survive by begging and “ragpicking”—gathering trash at the dump to sell as recyclables. The colony was built 12 years ago by the local government to rehabilitate the homeless, beggars and lepers who lived here.

While parents beg, they send their children to work as domestic servants, ragpickers or waiters at roadside tea stalls. The children are often neglected and grow up smoking and chewing tobacco. Alcoholism and domestic violence are common.

Hiralal’s father was a ragpicker, and his mother was a beggar. They made less than 50 cents a day, and the family would eat mandia pej—water rice—for breakfast and dinner. Sometimes they wouldn’t eat anything at all. But Hiralal’s father died, and the family’s situation got even worse. Hiralal and his brother would ragpick three days a week and beg with their mother the other days to help the family.

But in 2003, Compassion partnered with a local church to reach out to these social outcasts. The children were enrolled in school with Compassion’s help. When they first came to the Compassion centre, it was difficult to minister to them. They hadn’t had any social interaction previous to this and they suffered from low self-esteem. The children would go ragpicking after visiting the Compassion centre and they often missed school.

The centre staff works tirelessly to help these children. They visit their homes four times a month and visit their school twice a month to discuss the children’s development with the teachers. The centre also holds meetings and counseling for the parents. They address various issues, such as parenting skills, hygiene, maintaining peace at home and caste discrimination. They also strive to motivate parents to find a livelihood besides begging. At first, parents were reluctant because begging had been their way of life for so long. Gradually, though, parents have learned that God has a plan for them and their children, and many have changed their lifestyles.

Through Compassion’s Response Programs, parents were trained in skills to earn an income, such as making pickles, tailoring, vegetable selling and small business skills. Hiralal’s mother was one of them.

“At the centre training, I learned how to manage a small business. A few months later, when my son got a small gift from his sponsor, I used the money to start a small business selling ginger, garlic, onion and chili in the market,” she says. “Now I am able to take care of my children better than before, so I have stopped begging.”

The difference Compassion’s sponsorship has made in the children’s lives is huge. They now go to a reputable school with children from well-off families. They receive health check-ups, nutritious food, new clothes and school supplies. They have learned how to speak well and be disciplined. They take part in sports activities, exhibitions and competitions—something these children were excluded from before. And they show interest in their studies and even dream of their futures.

In his recent exams, Hiralal was third in his class. He is the first person to get an education in his family, and his mother is so proud. Hiralal is learning about God, and now he has a dream for his future.

“I want to become a doctor when I grow up because I want to help the poor who cannot afford treatment,” says Hiralal.

Through the care and dedication of this local church, these children from the beggar colony now have pride in themselves, love from the centre, and hope for their futures.

Written by: Amber Van Schooneveld

Amber Van Schooneveld is the Managing Editor of Compassion International's blog.