My Experience of Kolkata’s Rag Picker Communities and Tiljala SHED’s Amazing Work there

I visit Kolkata and Tiljala SHED two or three times a year. I love to catch up with old friends and spend time exploring my favourite city.  But most of all I love to be part of the great work Tiljala SHED is doing amongst the city’s most vulnerable communities.  

Those who live in the canal-side and railway squatter camps of East and East Central Kolkata lead the most difficult lives.  Originally landless poor from rural Bihar and West Bengal, these families would have come to the big city for a better life. And in some respects, that’s what they have: the chance to collect, sort and sell other people’s waste enables them to eat.  They build illegal shelters on government owned land but are mostly left alone.  Occasional home-destroying fires, disease, lack of toilets and sanitation, drinking water rationed to a few hours a day are probably seen as a reasonable trade-off for leaving the hunger and backwardness of their former rural lives. 

But for a family to move out of rag picking, rickshaw-driving or exploitative piecework is very difficult.  The imperatives of such a hand-to-mouth existence mean that filling stomachs today takes precedence over planning for tomorrow and families remain illiterate, undocumented and poor.

Tiljala SHED began over thirty years ago, established out of the compassion of a young man for members of his own community.  Mohammed Alamgir’s father came from Bihar, a landless Muslim, who made a meagre living for his family by selling meat from a tray he carried door-to-door on his head.  A proud and enlightened man, he ensured his children attended school and then university. Alamgir and his brother went on to have successful careers, Alamgir as a school teacher and his brother as a businessman.  Alamgir, with a group of friends, set up Tiljala SHED in 1987, a society dedicated to the welfare of his local community. They wanted to provide opportunity for others to lift themselves out of the slum and into mainstream society as Alamgir had done.  He still lives in that community, now retired from teaching, with his wife and son, Shafkat, and Shafkat’ s young family. Shafkat has taken on his father’s mantle and now works tirelessly for Tiljala SHED and for the good of this community.

Very early on Alamgir was approached by two European organisations who saw his work.  They understood the importance of partnering with a grassroots organisation that really understood and experienced the sufferings of these vulnerable communities. MISEREOR is the main charitable arm of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.  For 20 years Misereor has partnered Tiljala SHED, providing funding, guidance and support to this tiny organisation.   AIDOS, an Italian women’s organisation, also discovered Tiljala SHED: impressed by its work empowering girls and women in the most deprived and patriarchal of communities, they too have provided support over 20 years. 

With Misereor’s help Tiljala SHED has worked with thousands of rag picker families.  The community has been empowered by the establishment of the Association of Rag Pickers. The ARP is run by and for the rag pickers of Kolkata.  It helps them to assert their rights and entitlements, identity papers and other documentation (birth certificates, Aadhaar cards, voter cards, ration cards) which enable them to access vital government schemes. In the last 18 months the ARP has won government recognition for rag picking as a profession which provides access to SASPFUW (the catchily-named “State Assisted Scheme of Provident Fund for Unorganized Workers”).  Pensions, in other words. 

Misereor partnered Tiljala SHED as the rag picking community has struggled with a new threat: the introduction of waste compactors by the KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) since 2013.  While visitors to Kolkata remark how much cleaner the city is these days (and it really is transformed) the rag pickers have seen their incomes cut in half.  Waste is now collected by the municipality and thrown, unsorted, into huge compactors which are then carried out and emptied at the city’s vast Dhapa dumping ground.  To find enough dry recyclable waste to be able to feed a family, a rag picker (most likely to be a woman) starts work at 2 am.  And even then, incomes have become very unstable.

Over the last two years, T SHED has been running a very successful alternative livelihoods programme.  Misereor has funded the staffing, training and day-today running of the scheme. Seed money has been raised elsewhere (mostly private donors) to provide very small micro-loans to help rag pickers to establish new businesses.  These loans go only to women who operate in CIGs (credit interest groups) Each group, consisting of 5 members, manages the loans and repayments collectively. If one member defaults, it is the responsibility of the whole group.  The scheme works wonderfully well: we already have over 200 beneficiaries and many on the waiting list for loans. The loans are conditional upon the beneficiaries undertaking to keep their children in school, to prioritise good nutrition for their families, to reinvest in the business, and to develop a savings habit. The outcomes of this programme are excellent. Repayment rates are over 98% and the RSGF or Revolving Savings Group Fund (another catchy name) can make new loans every month.  Much more seed funding is required to meet demand and to help this scheme become fully self-sustaining.

Education and Child Protection is the third pillar of Tiljala SHED’s work.  Here AIDOS has provided sponsorship over the years for as many as 80 – 100 girls from the community at any one time. These girls, all from desperately poor families, can remain in education and delay early marriage.  We have seen hundreds of smart young women graduate from school and college.  With education comes economic power and the power to make decisions about their own lives.  A working woman with economic power will marry later, keep her own children in education and is far less likely to suffer domestic violence and family breakdown.  AIDOS also helped Tiljala SHED to build and run a library just for girls right in the heart of the Dara Para slum.  There are 800 members for this wonderful little facility, the Gyan Azhar Library, where girls (who often share single room homes with large extended families) can study in peace, hang out together in safety, borrow books and use the computers.

Tiljala SHED works with local government schools and with the communities to ensure that all children access their right to education (RTE).  The organisation aims that all school age children attend school and also provides after school remedial classes in community centres across all the five areas in which it works.  Until recently the after-school facility was available only up to class 5, which is in fact the most vulnerable stage for school drop-out. Since May 2017 Tiljala SHED has run a pilot project offering evening classes for children in class 6 and upwards in the Topsia community centre. It has been a great success with 100% attendance and all the participants have remained in school and graduated to the next class.

Alongside the education programme runs child protection. Through regular meetings, workshops, street theatre and other interventions all children and their parents are made aware of child rights.  Child Protection Committees comprising adults of the community take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the community’s children.  Child Clubs are the equivalent organisations for the youngsters.  I recently met one of these clubs and was deeply impressed by their campaigning zeal.  They were proud that they had just a few weeks before identified and stopped (by alerting the correct authorities) a child marriage. Each one of these young people (all around 15 years old) had big ambitions and all intended to go on to higher education, to become scientists, journalists, police officers. 

Tiljala SHED’s support is the hope of these young people.
These three pillars – rights/entitlements, livelihood and education/Child Protection – are the framework for these vulnerable people to lift themselves from the daily hand-to-mouth existence to being participants in mainstream society.  It is not the work of a few months or even years.  It is generational.  I see in those Child Club members – Resham, Saika, Rehan  the outcome of a generation of intervention: these young people are ready to fly. Their parents may be illiterate, but they, together with Tiljala SHED are enabling the next generation to change the story.
I’m sorry to have to report that Misereor’s funding to T SHED has been dramatically cut over 2018 -2019 and that it will cease altogether after that.  Much has been done to change these communities for good.  There is indeed sustainable development embedded in these communities.  But they remain vulnerable: their voice is there but it is not a loud voice.  The children will not thrive in government schools without the extra tuition they need to keep them in school and on track. The livelihood programme is not yet sufficiently funded to become a sustainable microfinance institution.  Tiljala SHED’s staff, many of them from the community itself and many who have been dedicated to this work for 10, 15, 20 years, still need to be paid.  They see that there are other communities trapped in poverty, families living on the streets, under the flyovers. There are children all over central Kolkata selling balloons to keep their families fed: children out of school, vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, abduction and prostitution.  There are rag picker communities in other parts of the city which have had little or no intervention from NGOs like Tiljala SHED.  Tiljala SHED is as much needed today as it was in 1987. 
So where do I come into all this?  In the two and a half years I have been visiting this organisation I have slowly come to understand the communities.  I have met dozens and dozens of people, Tiljala SHED’s “target” groups.  I have asked a lot of questions and been closely involved with a lot of the programmes.  

My first task was to start to raise the seed funding for the Livelihood Programme at the end of 2015. I have been following the programme closely ever since as the T SHED team set up the scheme and the adjusted it. It has been fascinating to see the scheme evolve and grow into such a successful programme.  Access to financial services I realise now is real empowerment.  The Indian Government has laid the foundations for this through a number of reforms, most notably Aadhaar cards and zero balance bank accounts for the poor (Jan Dan Yogana).  With small loans (none more than Rs20,000 and many of much less) these women have either set up new businesses or expanded existing operations.  They have increased their incomes, paid off their loans, kept their children in school and applied for further funding. When I interview these women some are talking about buying their own homes, sending their children to private schools.  They show me their savings pass books.  Such amazing entrepreneurs: they are cheerful and optimistic. And of course every Rs20,000 lent to one of them is repaid with a small amount of interest and can be lent out again to another hard working woman.

My current preoccupation is with education and child protection. The reduction in Misereor funding means that those crucial after-school remedial classes are no longer funded. We need to find the money to pay our teachers, provide tiffin (snacks) uniform, stationery and other classroom equipment.  We want to extend those vital evening classes to all our community centres.  We want to guarantee a quality education, regular sport, dance classes, computer classes, occasional excursions, parents’ meetings and all those other elements of a holistic education that any of us would want for our own children.  I KNOW that the Tiljala SHED staff and the programmes are effective, that those children are getting a real opportunity to change the story and lift themselves out of poverty. And I know it because I can see it.  And all it will cost is about Rs1000 per child per month to keep the education programme running and growing.


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