India boasts the largest youth population in the world, with 55 percent of the Indian population below the age of 25. This trend is likely to continue for at least the next two decades indicating the energy, enthusiasm, and resources that are available for harnessing. To appreciate the scale and importance of this population distribution, consider that the working-age population, aged between 15 and 64, will rise by 125 million over the coming decade, and by a further 103 million over the decade after that. While there are potential economic benefits of India’s evolving demographics, there are also many challenges. About 85 percent of India’s jobs are with “informal” enterprises. People with informal jobs are usually very poor. An official study of 2004-05 data concludes that 80 percent of informal workers got less than the then national minimum wage of $1.46 a day. They also work in hazardous environments and are often harassed by authorities. In such cases, a support system that decriminalizes and enhances the livelihoods of the urban poor through awareness and education is urgently required.
One example of such a support system is Chintan, an environmental research and action group that works with waste pickers through its various programs, such as Scavengers to Managers and No Child in Trash. According to the website, they help build green businesses at the bottom of the pyramid, chiefly among waste pickers, enabling a worker to earn minimum wage, work safely and legally, and not be exposed to toxins. They work with partners such as New Delhi Municipal Council, Ghaziabad Nagar Nigam, a range of resident welfare associations across Delhi region, and Safai Sena among others to help set up solid waste handling systems that result in green jobs. Chintan also creates customized education for over 1,300 children to help them train for formal school and stay in such schools. Rather than duplicating efforts of NGOs that provide educational programs for marginalized children, it focuses on fair access to mainstream government education. This is pertinent given that at least 30 percent of these waste pickers are children. Given the hazardous nature of the work, this occupation alone comprises a significant challenge for children working in hazardous conditions.
A study by Chintan in 2003 found 84 percent of all waste picking children to be anemic; and 6 percent of them could recall handling mercury. The children also recalled being harassed by the police and an absence of dialogue with them to solve problems, beatings and great humiliation by residents, no recognition of their work by residents, municipalities or other authorities, and poor knowledge of their own rights and laws related to waste. Chintan works with children in four areas of Delhi: Nizamuddin, Ghazipur landfill, R.K. Puram and Seemapuri, and organizes activities that help waste-picker children learn more about their city, governance and their rights. In India, millions of poor youth handle services that improve our environmental quality through informal services, saving public money. The work of Chintan shows that it is important to organize such sectors for inclusion in policies, help them secure green livelihoods, and eliminate child labor to harness the potential benefits of India’s evolving demographics.
This article was originally published on URB.im and is republished with permission.
The Advocacy Project
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