When a strange man approached 6-year-old Sachin Shedge outside his hut in Akola, Maharashtra, there was no way of knowing the danger that lay in store. The man concocted a story, telling Sachin his mother had died at a construction site and lured the little boy away from his home before abandoning him at the railway station. Lost, terrified, and all alone, Sachin managed to board a train out of Akola. The next two years were spent living on the trains, earning what he could from polishing shoes. At the time, his only support network consisted of other older homeless boys, who often smoked, did drugs, and robbed people on the trains.
Ultimately, though, Sachin was rescued and sent to Shelter Don Bosco in Matunga, Mumbai. He started going to school, learnt English and even started learning music. Today, Sachin is 22 years old and employed at Quad Sports, a sports management and infrastructure company, where his job is to supervise construction of sports fields.
But there are 11.7 million children in India who aren’t as lucky. Their lives are marked by eking out a living in eateries, garment making, auto workshops and dozens of other hazardous occupations – ones that no child should have to do. Asked what he’d like to say to these children he replies, “Street children face many risks. But it is possible to resist bad habits and crimes. Seek out NGOs that can help you get an education, a job, and live life happily and independently.”
A 5-city survey on street children found that the majority of them belong to “street living families”. For those separated from their families, things are even tougher. A hand-to-mouth way of life necessarily deprives them of good health, a sound education, and any power at all. Less than 20% of them have birth certificates or other identification that would make them eligible for child welfare schemes. All of this ensures that most street children (if they survive) are funnelled into the unskilled labour force. But there are times when, against all odds, children have been able to break out of this vicious chain through necessary interventions.
For Mangal Lad, a native of the coastal city Ratnagiri, the early years of her life were spent outside the Siddhivinayak temple, as her mother scraped a meagre earning from minding the shoes of devotees. When she was 6-years-old, she began selling flowers outside the temple, but by then she had already borne the brunt of police violence. Two years later, Mumbai-based Hamara Foundation reached out to her, had her enrolled in school as well as a health camp. Now, at 36, Mangal has become financially literate and has been able to buy a one-room flat in Prabhadevi, for herself, her husband and her two daughters.
Timely intervention helped Mangal, as it did with so many other girls. In fact, the survey found that “the presence of girls on the street decreases as they grow older.” It was boys who made up 63% of the children surveyed. And among them were Amol Dhanawade and Ranjeet Shah. Both of them left home in their early teens, fearing abuse from their families. Amol wound up at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, with only ₹300 in his pocket. Soon, the money ran out, and he had to start collecting plastic bottles at the platform. It was then that and NGO called Samatol intervened, and convinced him to join their 10-day residential camp. Eventually, they were able to reunite him with his family, and Amol went on to complete his BA in Sociology and joined the NGO full time.
“I don’t want any child to go through what I did for two months as a street child. My dream is to start a hostel for children who need support to pursue their education and dreams,” Amol says, remembering his experiences.
Things were tougher for Ranjeet, who fell to drug abuse while living on the street, and making some money from menial jobs like sweeping compartments. And when he fell ill with a fever, he was taken to Hamara Foundation, which helped him complete his Class X exams. Following this, he got into catering, acquired a passport, and now at age 22, Ranjeet works as a chef in Dubai.
The same hostile home environment that drove out Amol and Ranjeet was also an issue for Hariharan, who hails from Palakkad, Kerala. He was 17-years-old when he ran away, and began working in tea stalls in Chennai, exposed to multiple instances of physical violence, and forced to do hard labour. This was back in the ’90s, when there were so few organisations looking out for kids like him. But it was an older friend who gave him the support he needed to get off the streets. Now, at 51, he has completely turned his life around, and runs a BPO with over 5000 employees. What’s more is he is a trustee of Samatol (the same NGO that helped Amol) to which he dedicates half his wealth.
A life on the street is riddled with various threats. Children are exposed to disease, drug abuse and sexual exploitation. And there are very few who find even a night’s respite from it all. The same 5-city survey (of over 80,000 street children) found that a paltry 5.6% of them were able to access child protection facilities like night shelters, juvenile homes or drop-in shelters. But as massive as this problem is, the stories of these five former street children shows us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If life can completely turn around for them, then there is definitely hope for millions of other street children too. And if India truly believes that no child should be left behind, it’s up to all of us to ensure that it happens.