Thousands of street children roam the streets of every major city in India.
They are part of homeless families or fugitives from abusive households, hunger and prostitution. In Delhi, they arrive at the train platforms and are taken up by gangs. They are snapped up into a “cycle of abuse” and no one seems to care says Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, an NGO working for street children in Delhi. Their sheer numbers are not even recorded correctly. Not even 10% of all cases of rape, sodomy, or murder of the children are reported. In Delhi alone, 5 lakh children are homeless but less than 50,000 exist in the government records. Though a Scheme for Assistance to Street Children was introduced in 1993 – and later extended – it did not help as it could not be correctly enforced at such a large scale. The Right to Education also dictated that every kid should be in school but millions sit on footpaths with no access to any kind of schooling. Identifying the causes and numbers of this group of the chronically homeless should be the first concern while implementing a solution. Most shelters today are run by NGOs such as Salaam Baalak who try to educate as many people about the life that these youths lead.
Usually coming from an abusive household, the kids run away at young ages, coming to larger cities in hopes of freedom and a better life. They can earn more than Rs 200 a day, pick pocketing, begging, working in a fruit stall, cleaning cars, shoe shining and selling rubbish. The money cannot be saved, it will probably be taken by adults, bigger kids, and even corrupt police, so it must be spent at the end of the day. Food is not usually an issue as they are fed at temples they beg, borrow or steal. The money is spent on drugs and entertainment – video games, movies and glue or typewriter correction fluid. Those who take these inhalants usually die by the time they hit their late teens. For the girls, it can get worse – taken by brokers and sold into prostitution. This life may not sound like freedom but for most it is better than what they left behind and quite hard to give up to go to a shelter. To a child, freedom means not bathing or going to school; watching movies and playing video games; staying out late. And this is exactly the life they lead.
However, the counsellors at Salaam Baalak don’t pressure them into living at the shelters and going to school, and some – after a period at the shelter- return home. Every year, they send 600-700 of Delhi’s street children back home to different parts of India, but only when the child is ready. In the meantime they provide, schooling, medical attention and a home. Those who stay at the shelter get all kinds of jobs, from highway toll collectors to engineers, even an actor and an internationally known photographer. NGOs like this truly help these kids have a childhood where they are safe, educated and fed and this is very important for them to eventually cross the poverty line, leading much better lives.