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A day in the life of an Indian child scavenger

by ANUPAM NATH THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | February 20, 2021 at 3:38 a.m.
Imradul Ali, 10, left, and his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, return after collecting recyclable materials from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

GAUHATI, India -- Once school is done for the day, 10-year-old Imradul Ali rushes home to change out of his uniform so he can start his job as a scavenger in India's remote northeast.

Armed with a gunny bag, he goes to a landfill in the slums of Gauhati, the capital of Assam state. Here, he hunts through heaps of other people's garbage, searching for plastic bottles, glass or anything salvageable he can recycle or sell. Around him, cows graze on the mountains of waste that line the site.

Imradul comes from a family of scavengers, or "rag pickers" -- his father, mother and elder brother all earn their income through it. He started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money.

The family was hit hard last year by the covid-19 pandemic, as they couldn't go to the landfill and sift through garbage for things to sell. They struggled during the monthslong lockdown in India but were able to get food through the help of aid organizations.

Imradul said he doesn't want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn't know what the future holds.

"I want to continue going to school and would like to be a rich man," he said.

He earns up to $1.30 a day, while the rest of his family makes about $3.30 each.

"It's very difficult to run a family by rag-picking," said Imradul's mother, Anuwara Begum.

Scavenging is filthy and dangerous work.

While there is no exact count, aid groups say around 4 million people in India work as scavengers. It is effectively the primary recycling system in the country, but the work is not environmentally friendly. Those who do it have few rights and are exposed to deadly poisons every day.

India's last census in 2011 put the total number of child laborers between age 5 and 14, including scavengers, at around 10 million.

Thadeus Kujur, who runs the Snehalaya charitable group, says it's always sad to see children collecting scraps instead of going to school. His group runs five childcare institutions, taking care of 185 boys and girls, and has helped 20,000 children over seven years. "We carry out motivational programs for poor parents to realize the value of education before putting their children into schools," he said.

According to a new World Bank Group and U.N. Children's Fund analysis, an estimated one in six children, or 356 million globally, lived in extreme poverty before the pandemic began -- and the number is expected to worsen significantly.

Imradul's father wants his son to continue going to school, hoping he will run his own shop or get a coveted government job when he grows up, putting an end to their suffering.

As for Imradul, he wants to drive a car and wishes to own one in the future. "I want good food and clothes," he said.

Imradul Ali, 10, prays with others in a classroom in a school near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, prays with others in a classroom in a school near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, second from left, studies with other students at a school near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, second from left, studies with other students at a school near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, wears a shirt as his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, pours oil on his head as he prepares to leave for school from his rented kitchen cum bedroom on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, wears a shirt as his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, pours oil on his head as he prepares to leave for school from his rented kitchen cum bedroom on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, puts on a pair of shoes which he salvaged from a landfill before going to school from his rented kitchen cum bedroom on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, puts on a pair of shoes which he salvaged from a landfill before going to school from his rented kitchen cum bedroom on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, center, takes his school bag from his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, as he leaves for school from his rented kitchen cum bedroom on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, center, takes his school bag from his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, as he leaves for school from his rented kitchen cum bedroom on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, right, and his friends go to a school near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, right, and his friends go to a school near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, and his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, arrive to look for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, and his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, arrive to look for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, center, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, center, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, collects recyclable material from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, collects recyclable material from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, center, plays as he looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, center, plays as he looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, blows a balloon which salvaged from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, blows a balloon which salvaged from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, looks for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, and his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, take a break as they look for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, and his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, take a break as they look for recyclable material at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, talks to his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, at his rented house after returning from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, talks to his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, at his rented house after returning from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, draws on his copy book as his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, prepares food in their rented kitchen cum bedroom house near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, left, draws on his copy book as his mother Anuwara Beghum, 30, prepares food in their rented kitchen cum bedroom house near a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, walks back home after collecting recyclable material on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, walks back home after collecting recyclable material on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, places in front of his one bedroom rented house, a yellow bag which contains recyclable material he collected from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, places in front of his one bedroom rented house, a yellow bag which contains recyclable material he collected from a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, displays at his home baby chicks which he found at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Imradul Ali, 10, displays at his home baby chicks which he found at a landfill on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. Once school is done for the day, Ali, rushes home to change out of his uniform so that he can start his job as a scavenger in India’s remote northeast. Coming from a family of scavengers or “rag pickers," Ali started doing it over a year ago to help his family make more money. Ali says he doesn’t want to spend his life doing this, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
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