The Profile of a Ragpicker in India

This piece was written by Mary Stucky, founder of Round Earth Media, before the Next Generation Journalism model was established. To read more about the model, visit the main site here.

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Originally published on The World Vision Report on May 1, 2009

Lekh Ram weighing newspapers at his shop in Ambala, India. | Photo by Michael Beebe

Throughout the world it’s sometimes surprising to find people still doing jobs that disappeared in wealthy countries centuries ago. One example: rag pickers. Men, women and even children who pick through trash, looking for items of value.

Today there are still millions of rag pickers in India. Only the lowest caste people do what is obviously an unpleasant and demeaning job. But Mary Stucky met a rag picker in Ambala Cantt, a city north of Delhi, who does this job with dignity and hopes to give his children a better future.

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The following is a transcript of Mary Stucky’s radio report. To listen to this broadcast, please click on the play button above.

Mary Stucky: For Lekh Ram this morning started like every other morning for the past 20 years.

He rings the doorbell of a second floor apartment on a busy street
and tells the owner that he’s interested in buying her trash. In particular he’s looking for newspapers, bottles, plastic and scrap metal.

Woman: “He’ll just weigh them and according to the weight he’ll pay for them.”

Mary Stucky: Ram explains to woman that he’ll pay her not just according to weight but also quality. For instance English language newspapers are printed on higher quality paper so he pays more for them.

Lekh Ram puts what he’s bought into bags and carries them outside to his bicycle. It’s got hooks attached to it from which to hang his bundles.

He pedals off to his little shop about “about 4 blocks” away.

Lekh Ram: (Speaking Hindi) “I have gotten used to it and the weight doesn’t bother me anymore.

Mary Stucky: The open-air shop measures barely six feet square, and sits on a crowded street, an astrologer on one side, a shoemaker on the other. It’s stuffed full. And everything needs to be sorted.

Paper in one pile, metal in another, heavy plastic separated from the lighter kind. Ram sells this stuff to middlemen who come to his shop about once a month. They in turn sell to bigger recycling operations. It’s an efficient process in a county where nothing is wasted and almost everything has some value.

Ram is called a Raddi Walla, which means rag picker. The name has been around for hundreds of years and is a throwback to Victorian England when rag pickers and their horse carts were a common sight on London streets.

Now in India, Ram says he makes about 4 dollars a day — just barely enough to give his 3 children more options than he had.

Lekh Ram: (Speaking Hindi) “For me, Happiness comes when my child gets good grades or does good things.”

Mary Stucky: Ram doesn’t look like someone who spends his days sorting trash — with his neatly combed jet black hair and well pressed trousers. But he is what used to be called an untouchable – the lowest caste in India – now called Dalits. Traditionally Dalits were relegated to the most distasteful jobs: cleaning latrines, working in tanneries – that’s what Lekh Ram’s father did — or collecting trash. These jobs were considered unclean, and those who did them were social outcastes. But Ram says given his lack of education and his caste it was the only job he could find.

Lekh Ram: (Speaking Hindi) “I’m not afraid of hard work. Everybody should work hard and my earnings are coming as a result hard work. I’m not stealing. I’m working hard for my kids and so for me everything is okay.”

Mary Stucky: Ram hopes his children will graduate from high school, maybe even college. Dalits still suffer discrimination, especially in rural India, but times are changing. Now, thanks to affirmative action, places are reserved for the lowest castes in government jobs and university admissions.

Lekh Ram: (Speaking Hindi) “The poor in India have suffered. But now the government is making life just a little bit easier than in earlier times.”

Mary Stucky: As I left Lekh Ram in his shop, he was hoping someone might come by with a load of trash – that sometimes happens. In the meantime, he returns to sorting… with the hope that he will be the last in his family to work as a raddi walla.