Tracey Spicer: the girls who call a garbage dump home

Source: Supplied/Ilana Rose/World Vision

Their names mean "complete love". But they have known little of that during their short lives.

Best friends Arti and Arti, aged 10, worked together as rag pickers – the lowest of the low in Indian society.

They are Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables, whose families migrated to New Delhi from a small village in Uttar Pradesh.

"In the morning we used to go and collect bottles and plastic, then we would go begging. We'd get about 10 to 20 rupees (approximately 30c) a day," the taller girl tells me.

"We would give that money to our mum and she would run the household with it," her friend says, with a shrug of resignation.

We are at the Delhi Child Restoration Project near a sprawling slum which houses hundreds of people.

From the age of four they spend 12 hours a day collecting waste to sell to scrap dealers, who supply a growing number of recycling centres. With a burgeoning middle class in a population of 1.2 billion, India generates 55 million tonnes of solid waste each year.

In this city alone there are an estimated 300,000 rag pickers living on the margins of society.

"When we first came in it was very difficult to digest the lives these children live," says centre manager Raifiel Jos.

"(They) are facing all sorts of abuse: physical, sexual, emotional. They have nothing. Anything you can name that a child should have, they have none of it."


A young woman with a kind face, Raifiel's brow furrows as she describes the relationship between the children and their parents.

"There's an absence of a loving environment; their parents treat them like employees," she says.

Suddenly Madhu, one of the volunteers, speaks up."The mothers need to take better care of their children," she says, angrily.

Some parents, however, are forced into rag picking through what she calls "sheer desperation".

Lajja married young and moved to the city hoping to find domestic work. But because she was born in a rural area she didn't have an identity card.

Her husband turned to drink; she and the kids to rag picking.

"Starvation kicked in," Lajja says. "There were days when we went without food. We would have a small amount of watered rice every day."

Her weathered face breaks into a broad grin when I ask about her life now.

"World Vision came in and said, 'Why don't you set up a women's group to save 10 rupees per person a month?' I said, 'No, ma'am, we want to save 100 rupees each'."

The 15 former rag pickers have since set aside 50,000 rupees (about $920) from their small businesses in candle making, office cleaning and tailoring.


While all of their children go to school, half still rag pick before and after hours to make ends meet.

Lajja spends much of her time bringing kids from the slums to the project's study centre.

Basanti, a mother of seven, had been rag picking since she was orphaned as a child.

I meet her at the rubbish tip she calls home. Her kids and grandkids rumble in the muck, cackling with laughter, oblivious to health hazards.

They no longer rag pick – Basanti works as a cleaner at the World Vision office and her younger kids go to school.

"When they study they'll become something in life. They'll move forward," she says, determinedly.

Many, like Basanti, want to break the cycle of poverty.

But change comes with challenges.

There are pockets of resistance from rag pickers whose families have been in the business for 50 or 60 years.

Many are protesting plans by the Delhi government to open two more power plants fuelled by garbage, which would be hauled from homes by private contractors.

"The single most important thing … is access to garbage," Federico Demaria from All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, a group that represents rag pickers, tells Agenda.

"If the plants start burning it, the government is condemning hundreds of thousands of people to unimaginable poverty."


But World Vision says doing nothing condemns these people to a life of illiteracy and poor health.

Rag pickers don't use gloves or masks. They are exposed to medical waste, chemical fumes and toxic smoke. They often develop worms, respiratory problems and mental retardation.

To dull the pain, some turn to drugs and alcohol.

"It's really hard to bring about a change in the parents," Raifiel admits. "But children are really easy to mould, and they've changed a lot of people around them."

She engages kids in theatre, puppetry and poetry productions to educate the community about hygiene, HIV/AIDS and child labour.

(India refuses to ratify I.L.O. Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour, while the existing laws are rarely enforced.)

There's also a Child Parliament, where they debate ideas, policies and campaigns.

The "prime minister" gives speeches to ragpicker groups in the local area.

The project's success can be measured in the depth of the dimples on little Arti's face when she describes how her life has been transformed.

"I always felt bad when I saw so many children going to school. I used to ask my mum, 'Why can't I go to school?' Then, when World Vision came, my mum said 'I can register you, so you can go to school'."

Like girls right around the world, the two start giggling and talking over one another excitedly.


"We are much happier now. When we grow up, we both want to be teachers. Yes, it is only by going to school that we can achieve our dreams of being a teacher, or police, or a doctor. Anything we want to be."

Their mothers continue to work as rag pickers; their fathers as beggars selling religious charms.

They have now moved from makeshift huts with plastic roofing to tiny brick homes.

It's not much, but it might as well be the Taj Mahal.

From behind their backs, the girls shyly produce two pictures.

In bright primary colours, they depict a row of neat dwellings, blooming flowers and a shining sun.

At the centre of each is a small dark-haired girl, with a smile the size of the subcontinent.

These are just two of the 2100 kids and 850 families helped by the Delhi Child Restoration Project.

In the words of Raifiel Jos: "We brought in hope. We brought in an assurance that things can be different. These kids just need a little love."

Tracey Spicer travelled to India with World Vision. International government funding for this vital project runs out next year. If you would like to help, log on to or call 13 32 40.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 7 July, 2013