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With dreams of a clean Delhi, ragpicker to contest polls

Last updated on: March 21, 2012 09:10 IST

Ragpicker to contest Delhi civic polls

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From roaming the streets of Delhi as an unemployed and hungry youth to taking a shot at being party of the city's administration, Jai Prakash Chaudhery has come a long way, finds Priyanka

For Jai Prakash Chaudhery, one of the candidates in the forthcoming Delhi civic polls, cleaning up the capital is on top of the agenda. But unlike other candidates in the fray, Chaudhery actually knows what he is talking about.

A ragpicker, he has been collecting and sifting through garbage in Seemapuri, Laxmi nagar, Ghazipur and Okhla areas of Delhi for the last 15 years.

Prakash, alias Santu, came to Delhi in search of a job in the early 1990s. The eldest of five brothers and five sisters, Chaudhery had completed class 10 in Navagadi village in Bihar's Munger district, but could not find a job.

"There were no jobs in my village, so we came to Delhi to earn money," he says. 

Prakash and his friend Ravi landed in Delhi's Gole Market area after the latter's cousin offered them a job in the saree shop in which he worked. But in spite of searching for days, they could not find either the shop or the cousin.

"For two days, we wandered around the city without food and water, looking for him," he says.

The friends finally managed to trace Ravi's cousin, and discovered that he actually worked as a ragpicker.

Today, Prakash laughs about the incident that changed his life.  "He was so embarrassed. He probably never thought that we would actually turn up".

After dabbling in a variety of odd jobs like applying mehendi and working in a fruit shop, Prakash decided to go back to his village.

"By then, I had realised that I had to work to earn money and had to become a ragpicker," he says. 

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Image: Jai Prakash Chaudhery
Photographs: Priyanka/Rediff.com

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'Today I can tell a police wallah what the Constitution says'

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A few days later, he came back to Delhi and started working as a ragpicker, earning nearly Rs 60 a day.

Prakash and his fellow ragpickers often discussed the host of problems they faced in the course of their tough, thankless profession.

"The police used to stop our lorries and demand money, which obviously we never had. Some times, we were locked up. We used to think about how to deal with all that," he says.

These issues prompted the ragpickers to form the Safai Sena -- an organisation with 12,000 members that holds regular meetings and discusses the problems the community faces.

Prakash also got in touch with Chintan, a NGO that works with Delhi's ragpickers and their children.

"All this helped us talk about our rights. Today, I can tell a police wallah what the Constitution says if he harasses us," he says.

But in the course of time, Prakash realised that he could make a bigger impact and bring changes to the system if he contested the election and became an elected representative.

"So much funds have been allotted to the nigam parishad by the government, but most of these are not utilised. They either don't know about the available funds or they don't want to do anything with it. How is that possible?" he asks. 

Stating that he is strongly aware of the reality as "we live much closer to it," Prakash says, "Since I have nothing to lose, I will work more honestly."

He is now contesting in the forthcoming elections for the Municipal Commission of Delhi from Trilokpuri ward, near Kotla, on a ticket from the Lok Satta party.

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Image: Prakash at a garbage collection and segregation centre near village Kotla in east Delhi
Photographs: Priyanka/Rediff.com

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'My first priority is health and sanitation'

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And Prakash has big plans for his ward if he wins.

"My first priority is health and sanitation. There must be more dustbins in every ward," he says.

He wants to set up a helpline, so that anyone seeking any kind of civic help will be able to call up and file a report. 

Prakash also points out the woeful condition of municipal hospitals. "The government hospitals are so dirty. They should be clean," he says. 

Though Prakash does not have a mega budget for campaigning, he plans to make up for the lack of funds by sheer enthusiasm. He will go door-to-door to ask for votes and appraise people about his plans for the improvement of the ward.

Alongside the duties of councillor, Prakash also hopes to highlight the problems of ragpickers and garbage collectors. He rues that the Delhi government has rarely addressed the concerns of the community.

"A majority of my community members do not have ration cards. We contribute to bringing down the carbon footprint of the city, but the government still does not give us a license to work," he says.

In an isolated place around Kotla village, near Laxmi Nagar area of the east Delhi, Prakash explained how garbage is being segregated into plastics, foils and biodegradable material, which are later sold or sent for recycling.

There are eight workers on this site.

"They ask us to vacate the place every couple of years, and we have to set it up all over again at some place," he says.

If he wins in the MCD polls, says Prakash, he will ensure that all ragpickers in the city get their voting cards made.

Explaining his rationale behind securing voter cards for his community, he says, "I hope we can become a vote bank, and then perhaps the government will listen to us," he said.

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Image: Prakash at a garbage collection and segregation centre near village Kotla in east Delhi
Photographs: Priyanka/Rediff.com

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