It’s more than just lack of food
To live off the streets of Dhaka is not merely living in hunger, it also comes with an immense lack of security. For the "tokai" -- a child waste picker -- living in the capital, hunger and malnutrition is almost the least of their concern, with much bigger dangers lurking around all the time.
From horrific child abuse, to getting involved in criminal gangs, the tokai life in Dhaka bears the risk of everything in between -- chronic health hazards, substance abuse, and more.
According to a 2016 study conducted by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), the number of such street children stood at 1.5 million across the country in 2015, which is projected to get to 1.56 million by 2024.
Seventy-five percent of these children live in the capital, many of whom are involved in hazardous jobs like waste collection.
However, there is hardly any initiative from the government to rehabilitate these children-without-anchors.
Take 13-year-old Raju's case. After being ousted from his home by his step-mother some five years ago, Raju boarded a train from Khilkhet and arrived at Kawran Bazar. He has been living off picking wastes around the area ever since, and he now calls it his home.
"This is the only job I can do to earn some money as I never went to school," he told this correspondent, while preparing for a hard-earned sleep on the same sack he uses to collect waste.
Except for the clothes he wore, the sack is Raju's only worldly possession.
"I cannot keep anything with me as everything will be stolen as soon as I fall asleep. Even if I wear a clean, good looking shirt, they will take it off from my body," he said.
Raju's day starts at 4am. "I collect everything -- paper, plastics, glass and metallic objects. When I can't find them on the streets, I search in the sewerage lines. At the end of the day, I can earn Tk 300-500 by selling my haul to recyclers' shops," he said.
Asked about his plans for the future, Raju smiled bleakly, and said, "I don't even know how to read and write. I don't know what the future holds for me."
Mohammad Shuman (16), another waste picker around Tejgaon area, revealed the brutal nature of this business.
"I have been almost beaten to death on mere suspicion of theft many times. One day, I picked a plastic jar thinking it was thrown away. However, nobody believed me and I was flogged mercilessly and handed over to the police for 'stealing' that jar," said Shuman.
He was later rescued by the shop-owner who buys his pickings. He had to spend Tk 10,000 to get Shuman released. It took Shuman some two years to pay it back.
There's also the risk of getting infected or injured by hazardous wastes, as they do not use masks, gloves or any protective gear for their pickings.
Right after he got started with this life, Kawran Bazar's Raju suffered from jaundice for three months. He said he still suffers from fever and various skin diseases frequently.
According to Shuman, "Getting infected from handling sharp glasses, metals, needles etc is regular business for us. You will find hundreds of cut marks in my arms and legs. But we rarely go down with severe sickness. I also suffered from jaundice once but recovered quickly."
"We don't use gloves, masks or boots because we will not be able to keep them with us. There will always be someone to steal them," adds Raju.
For all their troubles, the "jobs" don't come with respite -- there is nothing called a rest day or day off.
For instance, in another part of Dhaka, brothers Taijul (12), Faizul (10) and Ijajul (8) support their ailing parents and two more younger siblings by collecting waste from Hazaribagh and Dhanmondi areas.
They spoke of the territorial concern that waste pickers have to keep in mind.
"Ever since our father fell ill, we've worked all seven days, even on the Eid days. If we miss a single day, another group will take over our space," said Taijul.
"We have to spend Tk 3,000 per month for house rent. Our father cannot work due to his severe back pain. Our mother has to look after the younger two. Who will pay for our school? And, if we go to school and do not work, who will feed the family?" asked Taijul.
Beyond the risky and relentless nature of the work, these desperate children often get involved in crimes such as theft, hijacking when they cannot collect enough waste to earn a square meal.
They spoke of another avenue to manage their hunger: drugs. Many children admitted to taking cheap drugs, like sniffing glue, to momentarily forget the pain of hunger.
This newspaper talked to around 25 child waste pickers from different parts of Dhaka and found almost all of them are addicted to narcotics. Most of them said they inhale the vapour of a certain type of glue used in repairing and joining objects made of leather or rubber.
Popularly known as "dandy" among them, this comparatively cheaper narcotic causes immediate intoxication and kills hunger and thirst, they said. Many of them are also addicted to marijuana and heroin.
"It's not possible to endure the pain of hunger for long. Even if I tolerate all the beatings and torture, when I feel hungry and there is no food, it's like I go mad. This is when I take dandy or weed to forget the hunger," said Raju.
Experts expressed grave concern over such disastrous conditions of the lives of these children.
Prof Dr Sultana Shahana Banu, department of virology, DMCH, said, "Long term exposure to toxic substances and narcotics may cause chronic diseases such as cancer, failure of vital organs like liver, kidney, pancreas, and even the brain. They are also very susceptible to chronic bacterial and viral infections."
Dr Muntasir Maruf, assistant professor of National Institute of Mental Health, said, "As these children do not have adequate parental care and supervision, there is no doubt that they might be exploited by miscreants for criminal activities."
"Consequently, these children will grow up with very low self-esteem and social skills and develop conduct disorder and anti-social personality," he added.
Barrister Abdul Halim, chairman of Children's Charity Bangladesh Foundation, said, " To make a sustainable change, the government should make a ward-wise list of street children and provide them with food and education through continuous rehabilitation projects. If these two basic rights can be ensured, chances of them getting involved in other jobs will reduce significantly."
"If such rehabilitation effort can be implemented in a few wards on a pilot basis, many corporate companies and generous individuals may come forward to contribute," he adds.
Syed Mohammad Nurul Basir, director at the Social Welfare Department, said, "To make any sustainable change, we need more infrastructure and expert human resources to run educational programmes for these children. Currently, there is only one shelter at Mirpur with 200 seats, which can house 50 children, adolescents, and destitute women due to lack of maintenance staff."
Dhaka's city corporations are also working to enhance waste collection and treatment efficiency to stop child labour in the process.
Commodore M Saidur Rahman, chief waste management officer of Dhaka North City Corporation, said, "We have employed private waste collection companies so that they collect the city's waste in a disciplined manner. If they can collect most of the waste, child waste pickers will not find much left to collect and their number will decrease automatically."
Air Commodore Badrul Amin, chief waste management officer of Dhaka South City Corporation, said, "We will install waste segregation and recycling facilities in the landfills where more than 70 percent of all types of wastes will be reused and recycled."
"We have already acquired land and a proposal is under review at the ministry. Once these facilities will be operational, the situation will significantly improve as there will be no wastes left for manual waste picking and recycling," he added.