From sifting rags to sorting lives

- November 17, 2022

Dev Pratap and Chandni began life as rag-pickers and learnt to read late in life. But today, they are helping slum children rewrite their future through education and healthcare

TWO TO TANGO: After rewriting their own lives, Dev Pratap Singh and Chandni Khan are rewriting the lives of other underprivileged kids

As a kid, Dev Pratap Singh had dreams of following the footsteps of dreaded bandits of Chambal, where he was born into a middle-class family. Fed up with his father’s strict nature, he ran away from his home at the age of 10, and found himself working as a rag-picker to make ends meet.

Chandni Khan was born and brought up in slums and started working as rag-picker at the age of five, after her father died, to fend for her family.

But luck had something else in store for them.

The two, in their 20s and who tied the knot last week, now run a school in Noida for children living in slums.

“Usually, children get inspired by film stars, sports persons but in Chambal valley, bandits are the idols. They were mine too. I wanted to become like them. I was very scared of my father as he was strict and we would often get into rifts at home. So one day I left the place at the age of 10 with just Rs 130 in my pocket and took a train to Dabra (Gwalior district),” recalls Dev, 28.

Dev says the amount sufficed for two days and he enjoyed good meals. Then he ran out of money even for water.

V FOR VICTORY: Dev with the kids of the school which he and his wife run

Struggle for work

No one was willing to give him a job and he was scared of reaching out to any of his relatives out of fear of them handing him over to his father.

“At the railway station, I saw kids of my age cleaning garbage, segregating them and making money out of it by selling rags. So, I joined them and began working as a ragpicker. I was reluctant at first – the stench was often unbearable – but I soon got used to it. I spent nights on the railway station. I got addicted to ‘whitener’ with other children over there,” he says.

Dev was drawn to petty thefts due to a lack of funds to feed his addiction and ended up in jail for 15 days.

A stranger arranged the bail for him and the other kids.

“When I got detained by the police, I decided to leave rag-picking and asked the person who bailed me out to get me a job somewhere. He took me to a dhaba near a corporate office and got me employed. I would clean dishes, make tea and serve it,” adds Dev.

He soon became friendly with the customers, who would transliterate English phrases into Hindi for him to learn.

“But my ambitions were higher. So, I went to Goa and got to wait at tables at a beach shack for Rs 4,000 per month after wandering the streets of Calangute.”

Dev moved to Delhi a few years later.

“After working for a while in Goa, I decided to start my own venture as I had saved around Rs 1.5 lakh. I came to Delhi and opened a mobile phone shop in Noida. Once, a stranger, claiming to be from Gwalior and in need of money, came to my shop and asked for Rs 2,100. I gave it to him. He returned it, and soon we became friends. I was earning well, but unfortunately one year into business, the landlord asked me to leave the shop,” recalls Dev.

A suitable job

Since it was tough for him to start afresh, the person to whom he had lent money got him a couple of job interviews. He picked the job in a sales company instead of the one in a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) office because he wanted to learn to interact with people and travel.

He moved from place to place and was eventually promoted to the post of area sales manager and began earning Rs 45,000 per month after two years.

“For two years I worked as a sales boy. Then I got promoted as a marketing supervisor, and then as sales manager.”

He finally met his mother in Agra in 2012, which was a very emotional moment for both. That happiness was short-lived as she died the next day in a car accident.

“I met my mother after eight years. I was very happy, but unfortunately that happiness didn’t last long. Next day my mother went to Govardhan Vrindavan for the parikrama ritual but died in a road accident. I lost the strength of my life. My only reason to live was my mother. I went into depression for a year,” he says.

GUIDING HAND: Chandni started life as a rag-picker but now is helping less fortunate girls better their lives

Life support

Two years later while still dealing with his grief, he met Chandni.

The girl brought up in slums of Noida began working at a young age.

“I used to travel with my father from the age of five to perform street magic shows, dance and would play with snakes even late at night. I also occasionally collected rags at the time,” she recalls.

When her father died unexpectedly, she became responsible for her family’s survival.

“At the time, I was just seven and had to work for someone else as a rag-picker, earning only Rs 30 per day.”

Verbal abuse and dog bites became a part of her daily routine as a rag-picker. She also sold corn, flowers and other knick-knacks.

She also ended up in jail on false theft charges.

“During one of those days of struggle, I was fortunate to meet a few volunteers from the NGO Badhte Kadam, who were educating slum children. I discovered my purpose and enrolled at that point,” she says.

At 10, she learnt to hold a pencil for the first time.

Persistence pays

She persisted, and after a month, she was enrolled in the open school programme, where she received her education. She started school at the age of 10.

This was a watershed moment for the young girl, who would go on to make education for street children her life’s work.

“I attended as many events as I could, encouraging community members and even parents to allow their children to study,” says Chandni who is now in Class XI.

“It wasn’t long before I encountered my first hurdle: two children were imprisoned after being accused of stealing. I remembered the horror of the day I was imprisoned, and went to the police station to get the kids out. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and it was then that my life began to improve,” she adds.

Chandni continued to work for Badhte Kadam, assisting them in opening new education centres and connecting more children to these centres. She was quickly promoted to the post of District Secretary and then to National Secretary.

It also provided an opportunity for Chandni to work with Balaknama, a slum-kid-run newspaper with a circulation of 5,000.

“Because of my eagerness to learn, I became a reporter for Balaknama, documenting compelling stories of slum children,” she says proudly.

“We were eventually able to begin its English edition, and my work was widely praised. This led me to the editor’s position at Balaknama, where I oversaw the newspaper’s entire structure and edit meetings. This part of my life will always be memorable because we did a variety of stories on the lives of street children, sexual abuse, child labour, police brutality, and stories of hope and positive change,” she says.


Chandni left Balaknama when she was 18 because they did not care for underage children.

While still trying to figure out what to do next, she ran into Dev at an event for slum children.

Moved by the plight of children collecting garbage, they decided to form an NGO. But neither of them had the necessary funds. Besides, Dev was uneducated and castigated for it.

“I sold my laptop for about Rs 10,000, bought a smartphone for about Rs 6,000, and used the rest to get a PG room,” Dev recalls.

Dev and Chandni then began visiting slums and conversing with children. Though they were cash-strapped, social media on the smartphone provided them opportunities.

Soon they founded Voice of Slums.

“The NGO – Voice of Slums — was founded to help those in need, especially those under the age of 18 who were turned down by other organisations,” says Chandni.

“The goal is to provide necessities such as healthcare, education and shelter to street children. We accomplish this with the assistance of our contributors, volunteers and mentors.”

The NGO organises various activities giving wings to dreams of those who haven’t had the means to accomplish them.

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