Rag Pickers Hoping for a Better Future

Placing your trash in a large plastic container that one wheels out to the street weekly for a large garbage truck to collect and deliver to the closest landfill is NOT the way trash is collected in India.  I must admit that I really hadn’t given the collection of household trash much thought until we moved into our flat and I then wondered, “what do we do with the trash?”.  Thank heavens for the maid who understands the system.  In our neighborhood, there is a man that brings a big wagon pulled by a bike around daily to the different buildings and gathers the trash bag that is left at the back of the building each night.  He has his designated area that he works and receives his 250 rupees each month from our household for his service.  I have never met him, or really seen him for that matter but I am so grateful for his service.


The trash collected by these individuals does not go to a massive landfill, rather it goes to areas where “rag picking” occurs.  Today, I was able to visit an area of Delhi where a very large “rag picking” community resides.  This particular community relocated from another part of India to Delhi in the 80’s and they have been a “rag picking” community ever since.  If one is born into this part of the world, the future most see in front of them is working 7-8 hours a day with the most productive hours being early morning and late afternoon bringing in on average (according to the sources I spoke with today) anywhere from 50-120 rupees a day.  (60 rupees is about $1.). This work is actually very unhealthy as you can imagine all the different waste that one would be sorting through and trust me, they are not wearing gloves of any kind when they are sorting through the trash.  They will search for plastics, paper, glass, aluminum, anything that could have value that could be sold to those companies that recycle the materials.


Please don’t overlook the women “rag picking” in the picture above and below.  They do this for 7+ hours a day just to try to buy a few items of food to eat that day.


“Rag pickers” are joined by the dogs, cows and goats that want their share of the leftovers as well.  Notice the smoke in the background.  Adding to the lovely fresh air of Delhi are the small fires that are lit to burn the unwanted trash after it has been picked over.


Within this community there is a non-profit organization that is bringing hope to girls in finding a better future than rag picking the rest of their lives.  Many girls in this community are not given a full education.  I asked a few how long they stayed in school and it was around 9th or 10th grade.  Some only get through primary education before the family sees no use in them wasting their days in school and their time is better put to use doing “rag picking” so they can add a little more money to their table each night.


PCI India is an organization right in the neighborhood that has about 400 girls go through training each year to provide a better life and future.  Monday through Friday, there are four different time slots during the mid day that the girls come for about 1 1/2 hours to learn sewing skills, computer skills, beauty classes and art classes.  This allows them to continue their “rag picking” in the morning and late afternoon.  Most of the programs last about 6 months before they get a certificate and then the non-profit organization can try to help find them work with employers or many go out on their own sewing in their own homes.  There is a very small fee (just a few $) that they must pay for the program so that they are committed to seeing the program through to the end.  On Saturdays the girls can also come to together for additional educational opportunities or just playing some board games together.


The girl in the blue pictured above was just finishing her “final” for her certificate.  She has been in the “beauty program” where they learn to do the elaborate preparations for an Indian bride.  The girl next to her is the student that was chosen to be her “model”.  She has been “decorated” as a bride would be for her wedding.


These girls were practicing the art of “henna” on some of us visiting.  Henna is a common decoration added for a wedding or other Indian celebration. 


Pictured above is the sewing class and the instructor is pictured below.  Please notice that all the sewing machines are “hand operated”, meaning no use of electricity to use them.  The girls have to learn to make their own patterns based on measurements and start out using newspaper, moving up to making small “doll-sized” clothing and then making and designing adult clothing.  When they leave the program, if a student shows real promise and motivation, the organization will help with purchasing a sewing machine for them to start their own tailoring business.


Pictured below a student showed us her completed project that she designed and sewed herself.  The students must learn how to do hand embroidery as well because the machines that can do the embroidery are too expensive and require electricity to use.


Sagina, pictured below, shared her story with us.  Her parents are deceased.  She is 18 years old and has 3 sisters, ages 21, 14 and 10.  They all do “rag picking” to survive.  They live together in a small concrete room that is not as large as some walk in closets in America.  They use a “common bathroom” facility in their building that is government housing and is often not working properly.  Sagina came to know about PCI and their program one day as she was out “rag picking”.  One of the workers at PCI goes out and canvases the area and lets girls know about the opportunities right there in their community.  Sagina is currently in the sewing program and she has a great desire to learn a skill that will provide a better income for her and her sisters so that she can make enough money for her two younger sisters to return to school and get an education.


Many of these girls marry at a very young age.  By law, Muslims and Hindus are allowed to marry at 18 or 21 years old depending on their culture, but many times they are married off by their families much younger, commonly around 16 years old.  PCI had an intern from the UK there and she has been interviewing these girls and is writing their stories.  She shared with me that one girl that really stood out in her interviews was forced into marriage at 16 and is now 21 with a four year old already.  She wants to change her future by gaining some skills where she can work from home.  According to information given to us, the director estimates that about half of the graduates from the program leave “rag picking” to obtain a better paying job in the workplace or at home.  The desire that exists in these young women is amazing to be around.  Just imagine you were born into this community instead of the one you are in.  It makes the opportunities provided to many other parts of the world seem incredible.  How grateful I am for my education and opportunities.  It is hard to fully comprehend this life but is a great reminder to me to waste not the privilege that I have been given.










2 thoughts on “Rag Pickers Hoping for a Better Future

  1. Judy Miller

    Karen,   As you told the story of the Rag Pickers, it reminded me so much of the story we both read . “The Rent Collector”.    I really enjoy your blog.  It is so fun to read each of them and get to experience a little of what you are going through.  Some I can relate to because of being in third world countries myself.. Love, Mom


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