“But baideo (Assamese: sister), I am earning enough to feed myself and my mother a humble one-time meal per day. Why do I need to go to school anyway?,” said Raju (name changed), a 13-year-old boy who works at a roadside tea stall in Guwahati. From his perspective, he is somewhat correct. Assam has been witness to a large number of desolate children under the clutches of poverty, like Raju. “If working in bits can let me go to bed with a full stomach, then why not?”
Guwahati, being the most populated and popular city in northeast India, is no exception to the common phenomenon of a large (and scary) number of children living on streets, as can be observed in other ‘metropolitan’ cities in India. Guwahati is estimated to be home to more than 5,000 street children, most of them either begging on the streets or performing mundane labour. A report by Al-Jazeera states that one of the main causes of poverty in Assam is the failure to properly implement the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, which was meant to delineate the rights and privileges of tea estate workers. Interestingly, what you can observe in Guwahati is that most of these poverty-stricken children work in small tea stalls to earn their wages. See the irony here?
The open secret is that Assam has been facing two major problems for the past few years –
Around 40,000 residents (so far) have become homeless in 2017 alone, due to floods. Although around 128 relief camps have been set up to rehabilitate the affected, for some it becomes quite a difficult process to return to their previous economic state. Most children currently living on the streets are survivors of floods over the years, which rendered them homeless (and some, orphans).
This issue has been much talked about for quite some time. Without digging too deep into the issue, what I want to point out is that one of the repercussions of such immigration is the sheer number of desolate children you can see on streets. The biggest dilemma is providing legal human rights to these children – should they or shouldn’t they be provided with basic human rights? There are various schools of thoughts which are constantly debating this.
Nevertheless, when it comes to Assam – or Guwahati in particular – it has been estimated that these two issues together comprise the two biggest reasons for children to be living on streets. The most convenient way for these children to survive is working for wages – what we call ‘child labour’. “In Assam, overall 4.9% children between the ages of 5-14 years are engaged in some form of child labour which is higher than the national average of 4.5%,” states the Eclectic Northeast Assam.
Without our knowledge, our house help’s daughter was sent outside Assam by her parents, in the ‘safe’ hands of a man who promised to provide ‘work’ for the girl and send regular money to her parents. The worst part is, we came to know about it later and couldn’t do anything about it. But after much investigation, the girl was brought back to her parents. So where was she, and what ‘work’ was she doing? What we learnt is that she was supposed to serve as a ‘wife’ to an old man with four sons in Haryana. Trafficking has been on the rise in the region. Especially for the children living on streets, this has become a nightmare.
As per the aforementioned Al-Jazeera report, at least 4,754 children in Assam have gone missing since 2012, of which 2,753 are girls.
Leading lives with no means or direction, where do these kids find their ultimate solace? The answer is ‘abusive substances’. According to World Health Organization, an estimated 25-90% of street children globally indulge in substance use. The dark corners of Guwahati are darker than you can imagine, with a number of street children partaking of abusive substances, dendrite being the most popular among those.
As you can see, every malicious occurring is linked to another and is an indication of another one happening. Once you fall into this vicious circle, there is no easy way out. Firstly, we need to find the absolute grassroots factors which give rise to such problems. Is sending children to schools the solution? A recent incident in a remote school in Assam shook our faith in the safety of schools. A teacher posing with his female students in an unacceptable manner to click photos. Is that what we want out of a school? This shocking incident makes me think all over again – what difference does it make if someone goes to school or not?
It is commendable that many NGOs in Guwahati are now working towards the well-being of these children. It is worth mentioning that there are even cases where these NGOs have taken bold steps towards bringing back children from the clutches of money makers. Providing these children with basic rights like shelter, food, and clothing, along with proper moral education, must be a priority. Because these ‘invisibles’ will someday grow up to become the torch-bearers of society.