M.Ashraf looks tired in the sweltering heat. He is diabetic and has high blood pressure. “But I can’t sit at home saying I’m not well. This is my job and the only thing I know…,” says Ashraf, putting the broken plastic bucket into his sack, already filled with all kinds of scrap. Nearby, is another sack with old newspaper. Ashraf has been a scrap collector for the last three decades.
Unlike many other people in his line of work, he does not have a vehicle, not even a bicycle to move around. “I don’t know to ride any of them. All these years I’ve been doing this work on foot,” he says, wiping away the sweat from his forehead. Every day he sets out from his home at around 9.30 a.m., after his breakfast, and cover areas in and around Fort, Kaithamukku, Sreekanteswaram. “Once I collect the scrap from houses, I put the sacks in an auto and take them to Chalai market. Then I return home by 2 p.m. and have lunch. I work on all days. On Sundays, I collect the scrap and keep the sacks at a house near Pazhavangadi temple since the scrap shops in Chalai are closed that day. I take it to the market on Monday,” he says.
Ashraf, obviously, regrets the fact that he hasn’t learnt any other trade. “My schooling got over when I was in class three. My father deserted my mother when I was very young. Since then she has been working hard to take care of me. Unfortunately I couldn’t continue my studies. I tried doing various jobs and finally got stuck with this one,” he says with a deep sigh. Now Ashraf lives with his 77-year-old mother, wife, Rahila, son and daughter-in-law at SM Lock, near Poonthura. He has a daughter who is married.
“My son works in a shop. His earning isn’t enough to run my family. So, in spite of my ill-health, I am doing this job. Unlike earlier days when I used to walk long distances and collect scrap, I can’t do that now. There was a time when I used to take stuff from some 100-odd houses, but now I don’t go to even half that number owing to my health. It’d have been better if I knew at least to ride a cycle,” he says.
The job doesn’t earn much for a living, Ashraf says. “Newspaper sells at Rs. 8 per kilo in the market. The plastic pieces fetch between Rs. 2 and Rs.10, depending on the quality of the plastic. There are days when I don’t earn even Rs.100 a day from the scrap dealers. Sometimes, I get certain items that are not taken by any scrap dealer and so I have to dump it somewhere,” he says.
He adds: “When I look back, I’m happy that this job has not landed me in any trouble.”
(A weekly column on men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is)