मैं खुश थी खिलौनों में, बचपन के संग,
मेरे हाथों पर ज़रूरतें डाल कर, तुम ने मुझे बड़ा कर दिया|
(In my childhood, I was happy with my toys,
By forcing responsibilities and needs on my hands, you made me grow up.)
Street children. Juvenile rag pickers. Child labour.
These are topics very crucial to every society – especially for one like ours which claims to be modern and developed.
We have these young ‘workers’ in almost every nook and cranny in India – yet I wonder what stops the government from doing something effective about their welfare. Even if the public schools provide mid-day meals, there are many reports of these meals being unsafe for consumption. There are promises of cheap education, better facilities, and what not! But do the funds actually reach the people who really need it? I highly doubt that.
These unfortunate children are thrust with huge responsibilities (feeding the family, taking care of younger siblings, earning money, etc.) at such a tender age that they end up being exploited by anyone who promises them a ‘better life’. For them, there are more worries in the world than getting less ‘likes’ on their picture or losing their mind over a fidget spinner. Their ‘games’ include finding a tiny piece of ‘gold’ in a garbage dump, or selling a huge sheet of plastic/metal which could earn them some bucks, or running the fastest from chasing street dogs, and so on.
Isn’t it sad how some children have all the privileges – the best of food, shelter, apparel, education and leisure – while others are bereft of even the basic necessities?
As I write about street children, I am visualising the scene a few steps away from my residence in Mumbai. Along the main road, there used to be a chain of makeshift huts with kids running haywire or crying in their mother’s lap while she tended to the food being cooked on the charcoal oven. Quite often, there was another kid, a slightly older one, who used to enter the hut with a chapatti or a bag full of plastic bottles or cans – the ‘earnings for the day’.
When I was a child, I used to walk to the rickshaw stand with my mother everyday to take a rickshaw to school. On the way, I used to see several children on the roadside with tattered clothes. Often, we used to offer them food – but as I started growing older and more mature, it made me think- is offering food really a solution?
There’s a saying- ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.’ I really wanted to do something for those street dwellers, particularly the children. So, I started writing about them on various portals – to raise awareness, at least, if not more. I cannot say how much that has helped those people, but I am glad that I initiated something.
However, now the municipality has wiped those huts off, and I can’t help but wonder what happened to those street dwellers. What became of those children? Ironically, there is a children’s home on this road, just opposite to the place where those huts once stood. It’s been operational since 1992 – providing free healthcare, shelter and education to street children.
Indeed, we need more of such not-for-profit organisations which are willing to help children in need. Besides, the government should also take effective steps against the exploitation of these children and their families. Free and better healthcare as well as educational facilities are necessary. Incentives like safe midday meals are also helpful. Providing opportunities for freelance/occupational courses that will help the children in taking up jobs when they reach 18 years of age are essential too.
Here, I’d like to narrate an interesting encounter. Some days ago, I had an appointment with a doctor. I was on the way to the clinic when I saw a girl walking from the opposite direction. She had a plastic carrier held up against her shoulder and a hollow metal pole in the other hand. This street-smart girl appeared a bit lost – and after seeing her, so was I! I was lost in the thought of how unfortunate life can be, at times.
As she kept walking, I did not want to scare her away or ask her to stop. So, I stood still where I was – to capture her innocence. As I paused to take her picture, this little girl couldn’t stop gazing at my mother who was next to me. Unlike other kids of her age, she wasn’t as excited about being photographed as she was to see my mother. I wonder what or who she was reminded of!