Stigmatisation, lack of formal education, health issues, and substance addiction is a daily reality for thousands of child waste-pickers in India. They are stuck in a vicious cycle of child labour and poverty condoned by society’s indifference and lack of opportunity.
However, one man from Jalgaon is changing the narrative and empowering these street-smart children to live up to their potential. Adwait Dandwate started his entrepreneurial journey in 2013 by setting up Vardhishnu – Social Research & Development Society, an NGO based in Jalgaon, Maharashtra that works to create spaces of learning and support for street children specially child waste-pickers and child labours.
Identifying the problem at large
Adwait was greatly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s belief, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children.” To truly understand the situation, Adwait, and his co-founder, Pranali conducted a socio-economic analysis of waste-pickers in Jalgaon city.
Adwait’s discussions with people from the waste-picker communities led to one conclusion- children were the most vulnerable.
Child waste-pickers lacked formal education, suffered from skin conditions, tuberculosis, cuts and bruises, abused substances such as bidi. Their vulnerability was perpetuated by the stigmatisation and prejudice of society at large including schools that refused to enroll them due to their background. Adwait realised that the lack of awareness and access to formal education were the root causes to the problems that the children were facing.
From landfills to a home of happiness
Vardhishnu started two Community Learning Centres (CLC) in places where most of the children lived. These centers are called ‘Anandghars’ which translates as ‘A Home of Happiness’. Each anandghar works with children aged 6-16 years and supports a child until they pass their 10th grade.
The children spend a few hours at the center every day. They are engaged in activities that teach them health & hygiene, life skills, and de-addiction. This drives small yet noticeable behavioural and emotional changes in the children. In the first year, the team focuses on helping the children reach age-appropriate levels of formal learning.
The kids are grouped based on their reading and written comprehension skills. Each group has certain objectives that they need to achieve in 6-12 months. These objectives include better reading and written comprehension in Marathi and basic English along with learning Mathematics. For life skills, the objectives are identified based on the child’s age. For example, 6-9 year-olds work on expressing themselves, cooperating with others, observation & participation skills, and learning basic personal details like their address and parents’ details. Each CLC has 3 educators with specific responsibilities.
Once they have achieved these goals, they are enrolled in schools under the Right to Education Act. Here on, Anandghar supports these first-generation learners by helping them cope with regular school work and succeed in class. Till date, 250+ children have been enrolled in schools, out of which 100+ were trapped in the vicious cycle of child labour.
The journey hasn’t been easy for Adwait. The biggest and first challenge begins with the children’s self-belief. Over the years, the children have internalised society’s generalisation of them – that they are violent and untrustworthy. This internalisation coupled with influences from their community peers and elders, makes them act out in aggressive ways. The team works on helping the children understand and fight these internalisation. They also help them believe in their own self-worth and behave in healthier ways.
Sustainability of the program has been the next big challenge – the lack of funding, and finding the right team members. It is difficult to find donors who wish to invest in the long-term vision of Vardhishnu as opposed to simply making a one-time donation of money or material to an organisation that works to provide short-term support to at-risk children.
Finding committed individuals who are innately compassionate and non-judgmental is equally hard. Despite this, Adwait has been able to grow the team from 2 to 8 people – a bunch that is dedicated and have equally contributed to the success of Anandghar.
Collaborating with schools has been a difficulty too. They hold on to their biases and often refuse to enroll child waste-pickers or even allow Adwait to run an after-school CLC on their premises. But slowly things are changing. One school has come forward, embraced their mistake and now happily enrolls children from Anandghar. Adwait has also been able to start a learning center in one of the schools nearby.
For Adwait, the happiness on the parents’ faces when their children get enrolled in a school is the greatest reward. Seeing the excitement on the children’s faces, the happiness in their eyes when they make new friends in school, when they experience an environment that they have never been a part of before, is what keeps the team motivated to continue doing their work.
Adwait notes, “Kids need nothing but love and compassion. Anybody who wants to work with kids from the streets needs to focus on these two values”.
Truly, Vardhishnu shows how two simple yet powerful values can impact the future of a child.
Reach out to Adwait and help build a more socially inclusive society for the child waste-pickers and child labourers of Jalgaon.