Along the Uttar Pradesh Border, buried in the by lanes of Bhowapur, is a learning centre run by Phia Foundation, for children from the rag picking community that lives in its fringes. The children come from make-shift houses, constructed on mounds on garbage, which they sort through for a living. The dumping ground is home to over 700 families that sort through the waste to recover plastic, paper and metal. Their days are filled with the pungent stench of rotting waste and the unrelenting fuzz of swarming flies. Education, to them, is not a priority – it is a luxury. But, with literacy levels so low that they can’t read signboards and bus routes, or even haggle for the right rate for the waste they recover, they’ve realised that a little education could take their children a long way.
15-year-old Gudiya is the most educated student in Phia’s three-year-old learning centre: she’s a student of class 9. She also juggles the domestic duties that comes from being the oldest unmarried girl in a family of 10. Every morning, Gudiya wakes up at 5 a.m. to take care of the family’s cooking and cleaning needs. She takes charge of the household as her mother collects garbage all day to ensure that she receives an education. “I feel responsibility towards my mother,” says Gudyia, “I wake up early and cook, so that she can take rest and wake up a little later.” After morning classes at the Government school in Delhi – housed at a distance that takes her 40 minutes to walk – she has remedial classes that follow at Phia. She spends her time learning mathematics, a subject that she struggles with, and one that almost threatened to have her held back in class 8. After her remedial lessons, Gudiya helps her mother segregate the garbage collected during the day. The selling of the collected scraps are done by her father – she and her mother have no role to play there – because, after all, gender roles dictate that men take care of economic matters, even when it is priced at Rs. 10 for a kilo of discarded plastic.
Once Gudiya gets home by 8 p.m., she helps her younger sister with washing clothes and cooking dinner. At 11, she goes to bed, set to repeat this cycle the following day. Ask Gudiya if she’s happy with her life and she hesitates. She fumbles to find the right words before she finally says, “I want to make some changes in my life. I don’t want to collect garbage for money.” But despite Gudiya’s mother working longer hours to ensure she stays in school, debilitating poverty proves to be a big barrier for the dreams of Gudiya and the children she studies with. Yet, she’s hopeful: “My parents want me to get married when I finish class XII – girls my age are already getting married in the community – but I want to become a teacher. That way, I can tell children about my journey, and then, they will also come forward and pursue education.”