Till last year, nine-year-old Mohammed Sameer would spend his day at the Govandi dumping ground, scouring for pieces of plastic and iron to collect and sell for a meagre income of Rs100 a day.
He belongs to a large, unorganised sector that illicitly employs children and keeps them out of school.
While Sameer was put in school last year through the efforts of Pratham, a non-profit organisation, hundreds of children still spend their days in the risky environs of the dumping ground.
Even now, Sameer, who is studying in a local civic school, goes to the dumping ground after school-hours to work. His father works there as a scrap dealer, and Sameer contributes by collecting plastic bottles and iron scrap.
For disadvantaged families, schooling is not a priority and it doesn't stop them from sending their children to work. "While I didn't put my older children in school, my two younger ones have been attending school since last year,” said Aslam Ansari, 52, a Govandi resident who migrated from Uttar Pradesh.
He works as a scrap dealer and his two children help him in his business. "They attend school every day but on holidays, they go the dumping ground,” he said.
The number of children who work at the dumping ground has come down from more than 3,000 about three years ago to only 200 at present, as per data collected by Pratham, which has a resource centre and a drop-in centre in the area to pull children out from the ground to study.
"Many of the children working there are above the age of 15, who don't want to go to school as they feel they have already lost out on their schooling years,” said the field manager of Pratham's Govandi centre.
The children work under constant danger of being run over by dumping trucks that visit the ground every day.
Pratham workers claimed that the RTE Act played a big role in putting children in schools. Earlier, even if parents wanted to send their wards to schools, schools would refuse, claiming they did not have the space. After the RTE Act made education compulsory for children between 6 to 14 years, schools had to accept them. Some civic schools in the area have even expanded their infrastructure to accommodate students.