Rakhi Goswami sits on a carpet on the floor of a small classroom in Delhi, India. The learning centre is situated near one of the largest landfill sites in the country. Surrounded by a group of children painting plastic bottles in bright colors and making waste into decorations, she explains her work. She helps children build their dreams, instead of picking through landfill trash.
“Some children don’t know about studies. We make them aware, so they complete higher education. They are doing their best,” she says. The 24-year-old teacher supports children from Delhi’s largest rubbish dumps as part of the “No Child in Trash” programme of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.
Twenty-three learning centres have been set up, in response to research highlighting the vulnerability of waste picker children. Chintan estimates that there are up to 4 million people engaged in picking waste, and Save the Children notes that roughly 20 percent of the 51,000 street children in Delhi are waste pickers.
While some children attend government-funded schools, many drop out, or must help collect waste on dangerous and toxic landfill sites after their school day. Some studies indicate that children who pick through waste are bullied into cleaning private homes, beaten by street sweepers or police and abused by the public – some are even sexually assaulted.
Chintan’s studies have found that, in India and around the world, waste picking children suffer anemia, worms, recurring fevers and multiple injuries. Often, they are mistaken for thieves, instead of disadvantaged poor children struggling to survive.
Goswami works in one of the learning centres to ensure a refuge and dedicated safe space for around 150 children from waste picker families to learn. They are taught science, mathematics, art and language lessons free of charge.
Some children are extremely talented, like 14-year-old Mohammed Hasan. “He dreams of being a mechanical engineer,” says Goswami. He helped his parents collect waste at landfill sites and made toys out of the materials he found.
The youngest of five in his family, he struggled at formal school and was enrolled in a Chintan Learning Centre to support his studies. One day, when his father mentioned he would like to have a water cooler to beat the heat, he decided to make it.
Using cardboard, wooden sticks, plastic bottles, bottle caps and a battery, Hasan has now made the cooler and plans to turn it into a real on one day. With support from teachers like Goswami, he is now back in formal school where he is deepening his interest in the sciences.
Chintan’s director and founder, Bharati Chaturvedi, says: “We identified social security and education as key ways to support waste picking communities. There is no place for child labor in recycling: there is nothing green about child labor.”
Chintan works with a partner group, Safai Sena, ‘an army of cleaners,’ to run the learning centres as a safe space where children like Hasan can learn. The “No Child in Trash” programme customizes educational materials for over 2,300 children across the 23 learning centres.
It provides health check-ups and conducts events, rallies and campaigns to raise awareness about nutrition and cleanliness among both parents and children. Parent counselling and community engagement is promoted through the learning centres.
Part of Chintan’s work also involves changing the mind-set of middle-class and wealthier communities to tackle the core issue of waste. “Poor communities are an essential part of the circular economy – they help middle class consumers close the loop – but at a terrible health cost,” says Bharati.
“We feel there is another way to consume, manage waste and reduce poverty, and everyone has a responsibility. Governments must invest more in research and development to end waste, while industry must come up with other innovative solutions. And as adults, we must support young people, to change society in future.”
“We strengthen the children’s core skills in subjects like science or mathematics, but we also develop life skills, helping children to enjoy being citizens of this country in a fruitful, positive and creative way,” says Bharati.
“We all get our foundations in youth: role models teach us to become positive, active members of society. These are the skills we have to pass on to build amazing, productive and proactive citizens who will use their life experiences to confront challenges in a constructive way.”
With aspirations to eventually become a social worker, Goswami is among those leading the change. “The children want to be many things like mechanical engineers, doctors or teachers,” she says. By learning in a safe space, children like Hasan can not only improve their knowledge, but are better equipped to harness their potential and realize their dreams.
This is part of a Young Champions of the Earth series highlighting inspirational work of young people around the world. Find out more about the Young Champions of the Earth, powered by Covestro.