By Zaiceka Ahmed
(Tauseef Rahman – right)
Back in 2008 when the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire hit the theatres there were two things we took home from it – first, the Jai ho! song that we played on loop especially when an Indian batsman hit a six. The other part that remained with us was the degree of filth that our country (represented by Mumbai) was shown to be buried beneath. It vexed us to no end, and we bickered, complained and protested against it for years.
But none of us actually got out of our chairs to do something about the crisis, which one has to admit, is very real. Given this assumption, one can clearly imagine my surprise when I learnt of the efforts of a certain Mohammad Tauseef Rahman – a resident of Kolkata and still only in his twenties – who has made it his mission to change the poor sanitary situation in several neglected pockets in the city, while also spearheading the Association of Ragpickers Kolkata, an initiative to improve the working and living standards of ragpickers whose number runs into tens of thousands in the metro alone.
A conversation with him revealed much about the deplorable condition of unorganized labour in the city, as well as the numerous feats he has achieved during his endeavour to help those in need:
I will be blunt – you hail from a college that is seen as a hub of party animals. How on earth did you dig up an interest for social work, that too the type which deals hands on with sanitation??
Well, I don’t think any institution is responsible for producing any particular type of kid…it’s mainly how a person is brought up which decides that. I come from a Muslim background to which the attribute of charity is intrinsic. As a kid I saw my family helping others to the best of their capability. I’ve learned from my mother to regularly donate something, even if it’s only a rupee.
Living in this culture made social service easy for me…but my college is definitely a place where one can hone talents beyond simply academics!
(Rahman and his family fund and organize a weekly langar at Topsia)
I’ve heard you started social work very early in life. Can you specify when?
I guess when I was around 17. I stay in an area a significant section of which is populated by people who are not well off. I started giving tuition to those who studied in Urdu medium schools – I began with only 3 students. It went pretty well.
The ‘Association of Ragpickers Kolkata’ is your brainchild. Why did you particularly choose to take up their cause? It must have been a Herculean task to organize this ocean of unregistered people…
Bringing so many people under one roof was not easy, but gradually they understood that our goal was to bring about their betterment and cooperated. I started by visiting them thrice a week and noting their problems, and now we have at least 45000 ragpickers in the association who work toward solving their problems. Even the administrators of the association are ragpickers, including the president, and, treasurer.
Ragpickers have somehow earned a false reputation of being kidnappers or a evil individuals in general, who have long hair, wear dirty clothes and carry a jhola – whereas they are just impoverished people who perform the laborious task of collecting garbage from in and around the city to sell whatever is saleable. The rest goes to the dumping yard. They earn a mere 50 to 75 rupees a day, an impossibly insufficient amount to run an average family of seven. They have stayed here for five decades yet they are considered refugees, bereft of any official proof of identity such as a ration card or voter id.
(Interacting with the destitute is a major part of Rahman’s efforts. Here he points out how a woman living on a railway track is satisfied with her life despite its shortcomings)
The introduction of compactor machines have drastically reduced the wages and employment of ragpickers. How does the association plan to make their condition better?
The introduction of compactors is a big step towards development in West Bengal and I strongly support this move. But while these machines are doing the same job that ragpickers do – segregate collected garbage – it all ends up at the dumping yard just the same. It has cut down on human employment which may push these unemployed people to a life of crime and drug abuse. Their income has dropped from 60 rupees a day to twenty rupees a day, making their struggle to survive even worse. Our association is looking to procure for them permanent jobs of segregating waste before it is compacted, and also getting them proof of identification. Even if 5 % of them are allotted permanent jobs it would significantly change the scenario.
Why can’t they be shifted to a different job sector?
Their upbringing and lack of skills prevents that. We are trying to change that in the next generation by providing them education.
You are also the Vice-president of ‘Tiljala Shed Camp’ (an internationally affiliated NGO). How do you balance this with being an independent activist?
TSC contacted me for collaboration when I was already working for ragpickers and slum dwellers. I agreed to work on their projects too as long as I was given a freehand to conduct the work. Incredibly, both ends worked out well. I believe if ones intention is clear, it is possible to achieve even the impossible.
How far have you achieved your target to spread education?
With the help of TSC we currently have around 1300 kids enrolled in the schools we have set up. We hope to convert the Park Circus library into a high school and for that we are looking for funds, which I believe we will start from January 2017.
That’s great! How did the families of these children react? Generally families that have a shortage of income encourage their children to work/drop out of school…
Their families are overwhelmed, and even their mothers attend our classes to learn about women empowerment and social awareness! We provide free food to the students, which also serves as an incentive.
(Rahman delivering a lecture in a school on Women Empowerment )
You have done a considerable amount to ensure safety and dignity of women by constructing public toilets for them. How many of those are functional now?
Ten in totality. These are temporary structures for now. I wish I could have made a concrete one, but again to help someone you need power. I’m all set to come up with 60 toilets really soon.
Has the govt been of any help?
A big NO!
The Rice Bucket Challenge is an interesting drive you have popularised.
Well, the Rice Bucket Challenge was initiated by Manjulatha Kalanidhi of Chennai. I told her I wanted to do the same, and started in 2014 with 6000kg of rice, and collected 15,600 kg last year which crossed all records – not even a single government agency has distributed this amount of rice in one day, sufficient to feed 3120 people in one stretch.
With so many issues plaguing our society what do you think should the government focus on most?
Providing employment should be top priority, as far as I am concerned. A man earning 3000 per month would also want his child to attend school, but no one can work towards education or sanitation on an empty stomach! Instead of giving lectures on TV about Swachh Bharat one should think about how to put food on someone’s plate.
What goals have you set for 2017?
Constructing 100 public toilets; establishing a Madhyamik board affiliated high school to provide free education; and put an end to child labour.
Here is an information that will come as a surprise to all readers – you are also an upcoming Tollywood actor! How does that fit in??
Yes! I have signed up for a movie to be produced by Ashish Kumar Dey from Vision Entertainment. I liked the script, so thought why not? The proceeds from it will go to the construction of public toilets.