Rukhsaar glared at us and said: “Why are you here? To make fun of us?”

I said: “No.”

Dhanno, already devastated by her first 30 minutes there, said apologetically: “I wanted to do a school project on garbage, how we create it and what it means to children like you.”

Rukhsaar was not impressed. She refused the cheap toffees I held out to her friends and her. She refused a drink of water. Her friends, obviously under her control, refused all overtures of friendship too.

They refused to be photographed, but did stop their work to look at us, and listen in on our conversation with Rajendra.

Rajendra worked on the dumping grounds himself as a child. He now works with Pratham as a field worker, going up to the grounds above his house everyday, to persuade the children to come to the Pratham centres for a few hours.

Pratham has 4 drop-in centres around the Govandi dumping ground. Children can spend 2 to 4 hours here everyday, being taught some elementary lessons by teachers, playing games like carrom or football, and getting basic medical help.

Pratham’s project leader, Christine said that a survey in July 2009 showed that there were 1300 children living on the periphery of the dumping ground.

Rajendra said: “The children earn 50 to 250 rupees a day, collecting garbage, up to 5000 rupees a month. Sometimes, kids will tell us, why don’t you come and work with us, you will earn more money than you do in your work.” He laughs and continues, “But what the kids say is true. The kids also find fancy hotel food here sometimes, biryani or cake, thrown away chocolates or gutka packets, and they will eat these, regardless of hygiene.”

I asked Rukhsaar: “Why don’t you go to the Pratham centres, at least to play?”

She said: “We play here. We like it here.” And then defiantly: “It’s not dirty.”

She couldn’t quite convince even herself that what she had said made sense, so she thawed suddenly and said, “You can take our photos if you like.”

I asked her: “Do you go to school?”

She said: “Yes, I’m in the 4th Std.”

She has 4 sisters, and 1 brother, and all of them, including her father, rag-pick for a living.

I said: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She gave me a scornful look and said: “I will try to study as much as I can. But who knows?”

Her sister, Sultana said: “We have to worry about eating today. Not about the future. Anyway, it’s not necessary that we can be what we want. It all depends on how much money you have.”

During my documentary shoots, I have been to some of the most horrific slums in Mumbai. But to my mind, Govandi is what I imagine hell would be.

If you are living on the pipeline in Bandra or Mahim, for instance, the huts are dank, and stink, but outside you can see the trains, you can see a sliver of the backwaters, however polluted it may be, you can see a city outside, and other people from other walks of life.

If you live in any of the slums by the sea, at Juhu or Khar-Danda or Cuffe Parade, you can see the sea, the sun, the high-rises, and you can sit out in the evenings and feel the sea breeze on your face.

If you live by the airport, at Jhari-Mari, for instance, you can see the planes take off and land.

But in Govandi, on every side, you see only acres and acres of garbage looming over you, and you know only rag-pickers and their families.

Though the dumping grounds are officially meant to be restricted territory, and only adults with municipality identification cards are meant to work there, there are no walls between the grounds and the slums, no gates, no guards. The children work, eat, defecate, play and live on garbage and can see no reason for the horror we feel at their plight.

Christine says: “What have we done to these people that makes it acceptable for them to live in these conditions?”

These photos and encounter are from a dry time.

I had been to this exact spot once during the last monsoon, for a documentary recce. The area around the huts was a swamp, the garbage was a minefield of unknown hazards. The director and I turned tail and came away, unwilling to shoot there during the rains, and take a risk with our health.

The children however continued with their work and play.

fotoos by Dhanno