With the sun perched firmly above his head, 10-year-old Shahjahan* is busy scrounging for bottles and plastic on the top of the several metres high Ghazipur landfill site. He goes to school, he says, but is here because it is a holiday.
This monstrosity of a garbage dump, that gets 2,200 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste every day, is dangerous to say the least. Apart from the site’s unstable physical form, the garbage generates methane, and there are resulting fires. Clearly, this is no place for a child.
So, I ask Jahan if he’s afraid to come to the landfill. “Yes, I feel scared. I feel scared of ghosts, of machines, of vehicles,” he says. He says he also feels scared of the eagles that fly low and in hundreds over the garbage. “They attack with their claws. They have done it several times. So now I just keep away from them when I am scrounging,” he tells me.
Sunil* is 18, but has been working as a ragpicker at the landfill for four years now. Hailing from a village near Nandigram, West Bengal, he studied until class five, while working in the fields. He left school since the family didn’t have enough money to feed everybody. “Those were days that I cannot even think about. There was a lot of tension at home,” he says. The money he earns from picking rags has solved those problems to some extent, with his younger brother now being able to study at home, without working. “I told him, ‘Brother, you should study. Let me go but you should study.’ At least one person in the family should get educated, right?”, he says. Sunil’s future, however, remains bleak at best.
Shahjahan and Sunil are not the only children who live like this. Theirs is the story of millions of Indian children who are forced to live in hazardous conditions on India’s streets by the compulsion of poverty and hunger. This, despite the fact that India, along with 192 UN member states had committed to achieve sustainable development by 2030, that entitles every child to a decent living standard. If street children don’t even get their basic rights related to nutrition, education and sanitation, India will definitely fall behind in the global race for sustainable development.
At the Ghazipur landfill, the situation is particularly dire. Living in makeshift shanties metres away from the landfill, children here work either as ragpickers, or in nearby markets to provide for their family’s daily expenses. Ironically, living on nearly a quarter of Delhi’s solid waste, they don’t have toilets of their own.
In another part of Delhi, at Connaught Place, the same dire necessity is keeping 16-year-old Anil* at work. He sells balloons and inflated plastic toys. He says he has been working for as long as he can remember. The 300 or 400 rupees that he earns, he gives to his parents, who sometimes buy him clothes or cook him food with the money. But they still don’t make enough to get off the pavements of the Hanuman Temple. He says he studied until the class 6 in a school run by NDMC, until authorities took away his books and uniform. “We live here on the pavements. So they told us, ‘You don’t stay here. Move out to someplace else.'”
11-year-old Jaya*, who sells balloons at the intersection near the IIT flyover, fortunately goes to school. But she also works, helping out her father in the evening. Her father told me that the 50-100 rupees she earns, helps him buy her breakfast. When the work is done, they sleep in the temporary night shelter built under the flyover.
For 13-year-old Chetan*, who lives at a shelter home in Kashmere Gate, the high of ‘solution’ – a cheap inhalant drug – was providing an escape from the harshness of life, until the shelter’s outreach worker found him.
He earned ₹350 for installing a tent and ₹700 for dismantling it. In a month, he contributed around ₹8,000 to his family’s income. His mother died of dengue during the Kaanwar season last year and he is the only one apart from his father, a daily wager, who earns for the family, which consists of him, his father, and his sister. The sister is too young, he says, and she just “runs around”.
Ideally – street children, meaning children who either live or work on the street – should be beneficiaries of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act but out in the real world, the reality of their lives is diametrically opposite to that envisioned in the schemes. No issue – whether it’s hunger or health, provision of safe drinking water or quality education – that India promised to work on as part of its Sustainable Development Goals – has been taken up by the government seriously as far as street children are concerned. The sad state of affairs is reflected in the fact that currently the government doesn’t even have an official estimate of the number of children living on streets.
In the absence of strong action from the government, we continue to have the largest number of child labourers in the world, according to UNICEF. Over 59 million children continue to have no access to school, with an estimated 3,000 children dying in India every year due to malnutrition.
Work on SDGs like ‘No Poverty’, ‘Ending Hunger’ and ‘Ensuring Healthy Lives’ – that every government should be working on anyway, needs to be outlined clearly and then implemented through effective policy making. Formulation of a strong framework to approach basic Sustainable Development Goals, is in fact, the only solution to bring about change.
“The government runs on data. Unfortunately, in the case of street children there is no data. When there is no data, there is no corresponding scheme,” says Sanjay Gupta, a social activist and Director of Chetna, an NGO that works for street children.
The system, Gupta adds, isn’t particularly sensitive to the children either. “If I am a caregiver, an NGO, police personnel, the CWC, then the first thing that comes to my mind is, ‘Yaar, he is only working somewhere, right? He is not hungry or poor, is he? Okay, how much do you earn? 300? 300 is good money, right?'”
“So, this is a mindset which goes against the street child and these are the people who have all the authority to link this child to all the schemes,” he said. That these children have no say in what the government decides for them is another problem, Gupta adds.
Gupta is now working on a pilot project which will involve a committee of all authorities, which interact with the children and will work at the traffic intersections in South Delhi. But he thinks real work can only happen if the government works on a sustainable model for these children, at least formulating policies that ensure basic rights every child should get – quality education, adequate nutrition and safe working conditions – goals India promised to fulfil when it became a SDG signatory. “If the NGOs propose a role model, then they (the government) don’t buy it. The real work will be the government itself forms a model. Then you will see how fast things will function,” Gupta concluded.
Stating that “much of India’s development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals“, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had endorsed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the United Nations General Assembly. Clearly, when we talk about street children, goals like ‘No Poverty’, ‘Zero Hunger’, ‘Good Health and Well Being’, ‘Quality Education’, and ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ have been hardly addressed . For the longest time, the government has ignored the needs of its children. It is high time that it delivers on its promises and works towards effective implementation of the SDGs. It is, after all, the country’s children that hold the key to its future.