A union of rag pickers in Pune is helping its members to seek new careers for their offspring

It was a day of great pride in the life of Suman More, a rag picker of Pune, when recently her son Lakshman joined a newspaper as a journalist.

This became possible as the union of rag pickers, Kagad Kach Patra Kashtkari Panchayat (KKPKP) has a scheme for helping children of their members to access higher education. This has opened up the doors of upward mobility for families of several union members like Suman.

Some control

Life for Suman has also improved. She recalls that before the formation of the union, rag pickers like her were harassed by goons as well as by policemen. This has now been checked to a considerable extent. Earlier scrap buyers invariably cheated rag pickers. Now this has reduced considerably.

In fact at one stage Suman's family would have been in deep trouble as her house was badly damaged. It was a Rs. 30,000 loan from a cooperative credit society started by the union which enabled her to repair her house.

Suman's friend Neela Sehat has faced even bigger problems. One after the other she had two accidents. Her injuries could be treated promptly only because of medical insurance arranged thanks to the union.

Due to the efforts of the KKPKP Pune became perhaps the first municipality to provide group medical insurance cover to rag pickers and started paying the premium for this.

It is interesting to know that the President of the Union, Mohan Nanavare, a leading Dalit activist, himself comes from a rag picker family. He says, "My mother was a rag picker and I grew up seeing her many difficulties. These memories were my biggest inspiration which motivated me to start this work."

From the early days the union motivated women rag pickers not to bring their children with them. This helped to reduce child labour.

Apart from reducing the problems of rag pickers, this union's wider aim is to link betterment of livelihood with protection of environment.

Towards this end the union promoted SWach Coop as a co-operative of self- employed rag pickers. Its door-to-door wastage collection and management services have already attracted wide attention as a role model for waste management in cities. As a part of this process, women rag pickers have been trained to drive garbage vans. Collection and segregation in a well-planned way has helped to improve recycling opportunities.

When union members become too old to work, the union doesn't forget them. From its own limited resources it arranges help for some time, and then tries to link them to government's social security schemes.

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