The plight of ragpickers and social indifference

Nilratan Halder | Saturday, 6 March 2021

The city's ragpickers are both a miserable and queer lot. Miserable, because the trash they collect are not only worthless in terms of economic value but also carry in most cases the risk of infecting them with diseases. The least said about compromising their higyene the better. Queer, because they seem to go about their business with the least care in the world as if they are not exposed to any danger from the materials they collect. If only they had protective gears and were not compelled to use their bare hands for collection of trash, at least there would be some consolation!

Notwithstanding their wretchedness, it seems some of them even have the supply of money they need for drug addiction. It is indeed pathetic to see that addicted rag pickers ---hallucinated as they are ---occupy the unlikely spaces below the foot over-bridges or a portion of unused footpaths, sidewalks, parks and sport grounds either for spending the hangover period in a dazed state or an untimely sleep.

However, not all ragpickers are birds of the same feathers. There are some genuinely toiling kind who rummage through the garbage and roam about in search of the discarded material that fetch them a price. Do they at times strike something really valuable? In a way, these hapless souls are following the poetic instruction where the poet urges the mortals 'Jodi kothao dekho chhai, uraia dekha tai, paileo paite paro amulya ratan' (blow the ash whenever you come across it, maybe, you'll strike invaluable gems).

How much can be earned from rag-picking? When a couple does nothing else except rag-picking, it should be assumed that this trade has helped the duo keep their body and soul together. Maybe, they have children as well. How do they maintain their family? Found to be collecting trash from early morning and sorting the materials until the daylight fades in the evening, they hardly seem to have any spare time for any other occupation.

Living on the fringe of society by any calculation, the ragpickers perhaps escape notice of social thinkers, policymakers and development theorists and planners ---both national and international. But they are very much there to serve a useful purpose like the scavengers do in cities and elsewhere. In return they hardly expect any reward from society which actually looks down upon them.

True, the drug addicts among them draw contempt from the more fortunate. But do people ever give enough thought to the circumstances that have compelled them to take to the miserable vocation and the journey to self annihilation? Why should a civilised society leave such scopes for people going waste? Whose fault is it?

It is not just indifference but also hostility of the privileged and fortunate that have driven them to this subhuman living condition. A caring society cannot allow a portion of its population waste away. This country's road to the soon-to-be achieved developing-country status has not been easy and smooth. In the early stage of capital formation, it is argued rather archaically, there is a need for some distortion and sacrifice. Who makes the criterion axiomatic?

If the rise of man to this stage of civilisation is taken into account, there is no doubt that the most neglected segment of society would have performed better had they not been pushed downwards at some point of history. The ragpickers or for that matter any other down-trodden class considered pariah in a better environment could have given a better account of themselves if only they got the right environment and condition to fulfil their aspirations. The clash of interests between various segments of people is undesirable because it carries the seed of mass annihilation.

At this stage of development of the country, policymakers can think of planning something better for neglected people like rag pickers. They deserve better.