What We Must Do To Protect The Rights Of 2 Million Children On India’s Streets

STC logoEditor’s Note: With #TheInvisibles, Youth Ki Awaaz and Save the Children India have joined hands to advocate for the rights of children in street situations in India. Share your stories of what you learned while interacting with street children, what authorities can do to ensure their rights are met, and how we can together fight child labour. Add a post today!

By Merril Diniz:

We meet them on the streets every day, smiling faces, selling us balloons, asking for a bite of our sandwich, or washing utensils at our favourite dhaba. We do not know their names, and as a society, we have categorised these children under one neat label – ‘street children’, barely flinching as we say the words. Little do we realise that this label has perpetrated a sort of invisibility that has catastrophic effects on the quality and duration of these young lives. Lack of documentation and a permanent address leads to the denial of basic rights. From the right to go to school to access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and even schemes they could be eligible for, and because of this the cycle of poverty continues. This is the story of over 2 million and more children who live on the streets of India.

To help nurture a better understanding of the issue, Youth Ki Awaaz and Save The Children India, came together on October 8, 2016, to host ‘#TheInvisibles: A Dialogue’.

On the occasion, five changemakers talked about how we as a collective can make a difference, while the audiences, comprising students and professionals, were eager to understand how they can do their bit to advocate for the rights of #EveryLastChild on the street.

Our first speakers were youth advocates Salmaan And Nisha.

15-year-old Salmaan used to live on the streets of North Delhi, while 14-year-old Nisha used to work as a domestic helper. From them we heard firsthand, what it’s like to live a vulnerable life, to have your dreams crushed, for the purpose of survival.

Salmaan, who is now an aspiring actor and actively participates in theatre shared his experiences of feeling “invisible” during his life on the streets. Nisha was determined to get an education and now studies in Class 8 in an English medium school; however, the journey to reach school was long and paved with roadblocks. The audience was no doubt moved by her convictions and spirit.

Next, we heard from Anju Talukdar, a seasoned legal professional. She has defended the rights of various marginalised communities for years. Currently, serving as the Executive Director of Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), Anju talked about the legal framework that affects the lives of children who live on the streets and those from underserved communities. Interestingly, she awarded our legal framework a “Perfect 10”. But only on paper, and not so much in reality. She went on to dissect the Right to Education Act and observed that ‘child of the street’ has the right to go to a govt/private school. “But there is a huge gap between policy and practice,” she reflects.

While life on the street is paved with harsh realities, it is important to understand how children end up living on the street. Harsh Mander, an IAS officer for two decades, and currently Director of The Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi, broke it down for the audience. “Many children run away from home to escape from violence. This violence never gets addressed,” he shared. There are other reasons too – children who are lost, those who get trafficked, those who are impacted by natural disasters and orphans. He also spoke about the stark inequities between the child living on the streets and children of born into privilege. For instance, the attitude of law enforcers towards the two is starkly different. The former has neither rights nor safety nets. “There isn’t a single policy dedicated to safeguarding the rights of street children,” he says, a statement that encapsulates the vulnerability of children on the street to multiple forces.

While legal frameworks and work on the ground is one piece of the puzzle, policymakers have the power to hone policies that influence lives. In this regard, Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, a two-time MP from Bolangir in Odisha, held a mirror up to the politics that wins votes but doesn’t honour its promises. “What we have not managed as a nation, is to have accountability when we talk about ensuring rights,” he observed. The rights of children are especially at stake since they are too young to exercise their franchise. Deo narrated an instance of how a personal intervention helped facilitate the education of a young girl, the child of a migrant labourer. “But singular interventions not enough,” he shares, and much needs to be done on a systemic level to ensure the education of children living on the street.

“Youth voices can help bring visibility to these children. Demand change from your lawmakers, organise yourself and use yourself to create change,” was Kalikesh’s final message to the audience, who seemed eager to galvanise into action, in their own individual capacities.

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Image courtesy: Save The Children
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