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Street children - The challenge

INDIA | Friday, 8 November 2013 | Views [2289]

photo by Alice Chandler

photo by Alice Chandler


I've been in Delhi more than a month now and many of you are probably wondering what I'm doing here each day. I'm volunteering for an organisation called Salaam Balaak Trust teaching English and trying to support older teenagers in their quest to gain higher education. Salaam Balaak Trust is a grass roots organisation that helps to rehabilitate the street children of Delhi by providing food, shelter, education and job opportunities. 

During my time with the trust I have been able to glean a lot of information from former street children and social workers at the trust. I will relate it here in the hope that it will help to explain the reasons that organisations like Salaam Balaak exist at all and why they do such important work in this city.

Due to the transient nature of our subjects it is difficult to provide accurate statistics on the number of street children in India at any one time. However, conservative estimates put this number at around 20 million throughout the country’s' urban centres. The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights has recognised India as the country with the highest number of street children in the world and Delhi certainly has more than it's share of vulnerable children without proper homes.

Many of you will be quite rightly shocked by this and it raises many questions. Who are these children and why are they on the streets? How did they get there? How do they survive? Where are their parents? These are all good questions and appear to have simple answers, but unfortunately they do not. These initial questions lead to others which go deeper and require more consideration to attempt to answer. For example why is this such a problem in India in particular? And what steps can be taken to alleviate the situation in future? In my opinion it is only after some time here that you can understand how this human catastrophe could happen and how it is so tied to the economy and infrastructure of Indian life it will be difficult to prevent this situation perpetuating itself each generation.

So who are these children? They come from a variety of backgrounds. The majority seem to be runaways from rural poverty, abusive homes or forced labour. But they may be been born on the streets of a teeming metropolis like Delhi to very poor parents who couldn't support them, they may have had some sort of genetic condition which caused their parents to abandon them due to social stigma, or they may have simply got lost in a crowd and their parents were unable to find them again. How can that happen you ask? Well imagine your child being lost in a busy shopping mall, now multiply that amount of people twenty times and imagine you are in a packed outdoor market or festival in India: hundreds rushing by, jostling shoulder to shoulder. Then imagine you had limited support from a regulated police force or government department to help you find your child amongst the masses. Not a very scientific explanation perhaps, but hopefully that gives you some idea. This sort of family tragedy does happen and sometimes the children are never seen again.

Why are the children on the streets? Some may have grown up there but most who come in to the cities from surrounding areas make a conscious choice; albeit a naive one. With modern media and communications as they are the children become aware it is a vastly different world in the cities.Even children in small villages grow up watching Bollywood movies and television. They know they are poor and that there is a better life out there. They are often the children of uneducated parents who work as their parents did; as simple farmers, labourers, or in other low skilled jobs. At present India perhaps more than any country is a world of divergent opportunity. So this is a problem of a changing world. In the city, the children believe, they can become stars and live the life they want. At the very least they can earn a comfortable living and live a modern lifestyle. For these children it's the Asian equivalent of 'The American dream', 'The Indian dream' if you will, and it plays out on screen much more successfully than in reality.

So how do these poor village children reach the city streets? They often stow away on a train as a result of spur of the moment decision. They are only young children after all. In ‘unreserved class’ people are packed in, literally hanging out the door. Under these conditions you can imagine how hard it is for a conductor to check tickets. It just isn't possible, so tickets aren't usually needed. So we have a situation where minors as young as 5 or 6 are boarding trains from villages and getting off in urban centres. You can imagine a child’s fear when they arrive in a city for the first time and see a crowd of people or large buildings, but even if they want to go home they often don't know where their home is or their address, if there is one. Or they know which village they came from but there are half a dozen villages with the same name in this vast country. So even if they want to they cannot find their way home on their own. This is how many become stuck in a metropolis like Delhi with no support and vulnerable to exploitation.

How do these children survive? I want to clarify, and I am relatively confident in saying this, children are not starving on the streets of Delhi. Being 'homeless' as we would call living on the streets of cities in the west, is not the same in India. It is a relatively common sight to see people living under plastic sheeting or at train stations. Often whole families with shelter, a stove, blankets and other conveniences. While it is not a desirable situation, I think because in some areas there are a large number of people living this way it likely takes away some of the danger and stigma that we would attribute to it. As for food; it is one of the true joys of life here for the poor as well as the rich, and it is rightly cheap. You can purchase street food at a very small price and free food is also abundant. There are up to a hundred festivals a year here and free food is provided each festival day. Besides this, Sikh temples provide food to everyone, regardless of creed, religion or caste every day. Thanks to charity within Indian society and also established aid organisations food is not actually an expense street children are even concerned about.

There are also many opportunities to earn money in the urban environment. Children are often employed in businesses like tea shops or restaurants. You also see children shining shoes or walking around picking up rubbish for recycling - so called ‘rag picking’. Some are lured into pick-pocketing, prostitution or begging. For the more socially acceptable of these trades they can earn up to 200 rupee per day, and for the latter much more. A daily wage of 200 Rupee (about 2 GBP) is actually a lot of money here when you consider a meal will set you back only 20 to 40 rupee and no money is required for accommodation. And, tellingly, it can be as much as three to four times what an unskilled adult worker can earn in the village.

So where are the parents of these young people? Well that too varies: Perhaps unable to be found, or unable to provide a safe home for the children. Sometimes parents force their children to work to help the family and deny them an education. In the case of poor urban families, sometimes the parents themselves are on the streets, begging or drug addicted. In most situations not providing the life the children would want or most would consider acceptable. However the children are not always neglected and there is often deep grief when a child disappears with parents spend years trying to find them.

My organisation Salaam Balaak Trust aims to intervene early and if possible return these children to their families as soon as they reach the city. They have a team of social workers combing the stations and streets to bring the children in to contact points where they can get a meal, a medical check up and tell their story. If it's possible and desired by the child the social workers will try to contact their parents. If that's not possible then the most important thing is to convince them to give up life on the street and join one of the Trust's full time shelter homes. Often it takes a long time to reason with the child and point out that they don't have a future on the streets before they agree to come to a fulltime shelter. The longer the children stay on the street the more they grow to like the freedom and independence and the harder it is to bring them back to normal life. Many times the battle is lost and the children never take that step. One of the sadder sights in Delhi is men and women in middle age or older working ragpicking or begging as they must have done as kids: Surviving day to day but without a future.

At the moment NGOs like Salaam Balaak Trust are essential in India. They fill a gap that governmental programmes seem unable to plug, perhaps due to the vastness of the problem. It seems as though these problems run so deep that it will take many generations to resolve them. It would take a massive shift in mindset and a huge investment to reduce or eradicate the problem of street children in future, but I believe with time and the will it can be done. The problem is closely tied with the demand for child labour in the cities that draws the children in. There are officially 12 million children working in India but NGOs put that number at closer to 60 million. Child protection laws were passed in 2006 stating that no child under the age of 14 should be in employment but that goal is a long way from reality. The government recently claimed a 98% school attendance rate for Indian children, which is so far off base it seems laughable. You only need to walk around any Indian city to know that child labour is very much a problem.

So the government needs to get real and get serious about enforcement of their child protection laws and make education a priority. With a population touching 1.2 billion, no doubt this is easier said than done but as time passes that shouldn't be used as an excuse if they truly want to change things here. Moves have begun, the government currently sponsors meals in schools to entice low income families to send their children to class, but it must do more. Some NGOs provide compensation payments to parents who are effectively losing a day's labour when they send their children to the classroom. Perhaps the government could look at that as an option if parents cannot afford to lose their children's labour or understand the value of educating their next generation.

In the interim concrete steps could be made to mitigate the problem of child runaways. Regulation of India's train system must improve and be brought up to modern standards. This is achievable, there is plenty of money in this country these days, it only needs to be effectively collected and targeted in the right areas. There should be more people employed, more ticket gates and more people checking who gets on and off the trains. And with that, necessarily, more security will need to be put in place. This would prevent many of these children from illegally travelling to urban centres in the first place.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to change will the culture of caste still deeply engrained in India, especially in rural areas. Discrimination based on caste is now officially illegal but the philosophy is hard to shift: Essentially you are born with a place in life and for most people there are always people above and below them on the pecking order. Through religion, the people are taught to accept their place as indicative of their actions in previous lives and if they perform good deeds in this one they can then rise in the next. The idea that individuals can rise from a lower rank to the higher educated elite is still a revolutionary one here and prejudice runs deep in segments of Indian society. In urban areas things are slowly changing but while the majority of the country lives by a philosophy of pre-destination based on past karma things will not change. Why would a farm labourer send a child to study at university when their place is in the village on the farm? It makes no sense to you and it makes no sense to them. So parents will keep their children working on the small plot of land in the village rather than sending them to school. If children aren't satisfied with that some will take drastic measures.

The problem of street children is a complex one and due to a culmination of factors it seems India is more susceptible to it that most nations. As a result it will take many years and a genuine national will to eradicate or even alleviate the situation here. In the meantime Salaam Baalak Trust and other NGOs will continue to do the valuable work of picking up the pieces and showing these children another way.

In a number of ways the boys I work with are the lucky ones. Most were runaways. They had to endure tough times on the street but they have come out the other side and been able to see what is possible for them. They have worked hard, made up classes through correspondence and overcome a lack of formal education when they were younger. On the verge of completing high-school, they now have the control of their lives that they craved years ago when they made their decision to leave home. They will go on to university and a world of possibility.  They will inspire the next generation of children at the Trust while at the same time showing their fellow citizens what great potential street children have and what you can make of your life if you are given the chance.

Tags: begging, child labour, delhi, india, poverty, ragpicking, street children, village

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