The closure of government schools due to lockdown and subsequent stopping of mid-day meals in the schools have forced many primary and middle-school students to turn to rag-picking and begging in Madhya Pradesh's state capital Bhopal. Whatever little counting Sumit Ahirwar, 14, learnt at Government primary school is now helping him fetch the right price for the scrap he collects every morning. "I can count up to 200," he said, beaming with pride.
He clutches a jute bag full of rags, crushed plastic bottles and strapped bundles of newspapers and the responsibility to feed his parents over his thin shoulder. "I have to support my family," said Ahirwar, a Class II student, glass clinking in his bag as he moves. Besides the ration procured through the public distribution system, the ₹100-150 he makes every day by salvaging scrap until 6 pm is helping him keep his family alive at their tin shed dwelling in TT Nagar here in Bhopal.
While his father, who is differently-abled, was a daily wager and used to find work at a construction site everyday before the lockdown kicked in, his mother, suffering from a mental illness, stays home and can barely make out why the city shut suddenly.
Another boy, Lodhi wakes up every morning, looks after their parents and heads out for rag-picking at 9 am every day. Earlier when his school wasn't closed, he used to start early for rag-picking.
Like him, there are many kids who were studying in government schools before lockdown and have started rag-picking or begging to support his/her family. Some of the places where The Logical Indian visited are TT Nagar, MP Nagar, Habiganj railway station, Kolar and Sukhi Sewaniya areas of the city.
Almost all the children live in sheds (jhuggis) and their parents are either daily-wagers or domestic helpers. Since they have no work in this prolonged lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they are living in penury. The recently imposed 10-day lockdown in Bhopal after a report of massive surge in Covid-19 cases from July 25 to August 3 has added to their woes.
Rag-picking is a tougher job than begging for children. The school kids have been making between Rs 120 to 150 a day by salvaging scraps while those children who have been begging on the railway stations, traffic signals and near popular eateries are making more money than scrap sellers.
"We have identified 15 children living in the sheds and persuaded them from such activities earlier. But, now invariably all of them are back at it" said Archna Sahay, Director, Aarambh, a child rights non-government organisation (NGO).
In 2019, the city NGOs rescued as many as 175 child beggars and 350 child rag-pickers from the eight spots of the city under the Khushal Naunihal Initiative of the Bhopal division. By understanding the needs of their families, they made sure they joined schools.
"Many parents endorsed their children's begging. The Child Welfare Committee directed cases be registered against them," said Sahay. Interest which these children were slowly developing towards schooling has been hit hard as schools remained shut, she added.
As far as the Law is concerned, Section 76 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015, prohibits employment of children from begging.
'Eating rice, salt with green chilly once a day'
The Logical Indian visited Sukhi Sewaniya, which is 15-km away from the main city and located on the Bhopal-Vidisha road. There are nearly 400 homes, majority of them are ragpickers, beggars, gypsies and daily-wagers. The parents of these colonies, who used to send their kids to the primary school in desire of getting one time healthy meal and education are now pushing their kids either into rag-picking or begging since lockdown.
"Every penny counts as the scrap prices have crashed from Rs 21 a kg to Rs 14-15 kg after the lockdown," said Kartik Lodhi, 42 (name changed). For the last couple of months, he has failed to earn enough money to feed his five children. Hence, he asked his wife to take his six-year-old daughter, who was enrolled in class 1 of the primary school last year for rag-picking. "Even the ₹20-30 my daughter earns is crucial. Now that the school is shut, she sits idle at home anyway," said Lodhi.
While another resident Rukmani Bai, 48, claimed that from the last three-four months her family has been eating once a day just to keep themselves alive. Most of the time it's rice, salt and green chilly. "We don't have enough food, somehow we are managing once a day. My husband was a daily-wager, but became unemployed in the lockdown."
She claimed that their two kids who used to go to government schools are now supporting the family. They go to the nearest dump yard, Bhanpur and collect scrap and sell it.
The primary school which was established in 2007 in Sukhi Sewaniya has nearly 132 students from class 1 to 5. And nearly 300 students are enrolled in Middle School. "The attendance was healthy in the school because of the mid-day meal. Most of the students attended classes regularly. But since the first lockdown was imposed, the schools are shut and students are left with no work," said a social activist of the locality, Anju Chouhan. "In April, the school admin distributed 2 kg rice to each primary school students as compensation of mid-day meal. Since then, they have got nothing," claimed Anju who is working in the area with an NGO Bachpan.
Nevertheless, the State Government on May 1 ordered door-to-door delivery of mid-day meals to primary and middle school students. And claimed to have transferred Rs 117 crore on the accounts of 66.27 lakh primary and middle school student's parents. They also claimed to have delivered a mid-day meal ration to the 56.87 lakh children on the doorstep. However, it did not reach the children of Sukhi Sewaniya, claimed parents and social activists.
"We have been working for more than a decade in the region and our primary focus is to educate and rehabilitate the kids from their traditional work, rag-picking and begging," said Rajeev Bhargava, founder of a non-government organisation, Bachpan. "We persuade parents to send their children to school and in the last four years we have managed to enroll 128 kids to the schools and monitor their situation," he said. "But, it seems that all our efforts are gone in vain," he lamented, adding that the children have returned to begging and salvaging scrap. It will be a tough task to bring the children to school again.
Commenting over it, Rakhi Raghuwanshi of Uday Samajik Vikas Sansthan, an NGO said, "We have taken up the issue of children returning to rag-picking and begging with the Bhopal administration. There needs to be a contingency plan for such families during the pandemic."
Meanwhile, the District Education Officer Nitin Saxena said that the administration has not yet come across such cases. "However, we will look into the issue raised and help resolve it."