Once school is done for the day, 10-year-old Imradul Ali rushes home to change out of his uniform so he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast.
Armed with a large sack, he goes to a landfill in the slums of Gauhati, the capital of Assam state. Here, he hunts through heaps of other people’s garbage, searching for plastic bottles, glass or anything salvageable he can recycle or sell. Around him, cows graze on the mountains of waste that line the site.
Ali comes from a family of scavengers, or “rag pickers” – his father, mother and elder brother all earn their income through it. He started doing it over a year ago to help his family.
The family was hit hard last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, as they could not go to the landfill to work. They struggled during the months-long lockdown in India but were able to get food through the help of aid organisations.
Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. “I want to continue going to school and would like to be a rich man,” he said.
He earns up to 100 rupees ($1.30) a day, while the rest of his family makes about 250 rupees ($3.30) each.
“It’s very difficult to run a family by rag-picking,” said Ali’s mother, Anuwara Begum.
Thadeus Kujur, who runs the Snehalaya charitable group, says it’s always sad to see children collecting scraps to survive. His group runs five childcare institutions, taking care of 185 boys and girls, and has helped 20,000 children over seven years. “We carry out motivational programs for poor parents to realise the value of education before putting their children into schools,” he said.
Ali’s father wants his son to continue going to school, hoping he will run his own shop or get a coveted government job when he grows up, putting an end to their suffering.
As for Ali, he wants to drive a car and wishes to own one in the future. “I want good food and clothes,” he said.