In May 2015, I joined a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as a home co-ordinator and worked there for a brief period of three months. It was an opportunity that helped me to interact directly with homeless children and learn about their living conditions and the circumstances that forced them to lead a miserable life away from their homes.
My brief association with street children made me realise that they lived in sub-human conditions. They were harassed by their own community or by the police, and were victims of abuse, poverty, hunger and starvation.
I also found out that some non-profit organisations working for the welfare of street children lacked adequate resources to take better care of the homeless children. On the other hand, the NGOs working for the rehabilitation of street children attract all sorts of children – orphaned children, children with one parent, children with no knowledge of their parents or their homes, and children whose parents lack resources to properly feed, clothe and educate them. I found some ‘runaway’ children in these shelters, who had run away from the persecution and the harassment they faced back at home.
I also discovered that some NGOs organise programs to sensitise citizens about the issue of street children and provide insights into how they live. These sensitisation drives are carried out uniquely – sometimes through organising night walks, and at other times, doing street plays depicting the miserable conditions of street children.
As per my experience, these children generally come from poor backgrounds. Their parents come from different parts of India to cities to eke out a living – but end up being destitute for one reason or the other.
Over a period, they tend to get addicted to drugs and become irresponsible parents. The children are then forced into rag-picking or begging in front of restaurants, places of worship and other such locations. These circumstances make the children vulnerable to crimes. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), parental neglect is the main factor that forces these children into crime. Another study conducted by ASSOCHAM Ladies League revealed that compelling circumstances such as alcoholic parents, rampant child abuse and poverty of the parents force the kids to flee their native homes and migrate to cities.
The same study disclosed that according to the UN, India had the highest number of street kids in the world. According to some estimates, the count is a staggering 20 million. In 2013, a study conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which came to be known as the first street children census, estimated the number of street children to be 37,059 in Mumbai alone. Previously, in 2011, a count by Save The Children India had estimated a whopping 50,923 street children in Delhi.
They try to earn money but are often deprived of their earnings by parents, siblings or criminals. They also face a severe drug abuse problem The TISS study in 2013 found that 15% of the children surveyed were addicted to drugs, whitener, shoe polish.
These street children have no proper shelter to take refuge in. They also generally don’t have access to toilet facilities.
Scarcity of food is a perennial problem for these kids, even though there are some people who distribute food for free to street children and orphans. In a one-night walk, organised by an NGO, I saw that a hotel owner in Jama Masjid offering free food to the destitute and street children in a unique style. He curved the roti like a bowl and poured gravy into it. This enabled him to serve more people with less cost.
Apart from this, the children are prone to being abused physically, sodomised, raped and sometimes beaten mercilessly for no reason or for a trivial mistake. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Over a period of time, these kids resort to petty crimes in order to feed themselves and for their drugs.
During my stint as a home co-ordinator in an NGO, I realised that the inmates of these NGO shelters often go through a lot of turmoil. Emotionally, they often feel like they are deprived basic things – like the affection and patronage of parents. The lack parental or familial support forces them to think of their bleak futures ahead. Still, there are a few who want to achieve something big in their lives.
I also found that the kids who want to visit their families have to wait for months to meet their families or any of their guardians. Permission is often not granted by the shelters due to the kids’ tendency of overstaying at their family homes and the fear that the kids will bring ‘bad habits’ with them, once they return. This is a serious concern that NGOs need to address.
The broad guidelines
1. Separate homes need to be provided for street children along the lines of rain basera (night shelters). The homes should be for these children only – with a proper categorisation of rooms as per the ages of the children. People between 15 and 18 should be housed separately.
2. Separate washrooms should be made for kids, along with community toilets like Sulabh. Many times, community toilets become sites of physical assault. The governments should urge restaurants and petrol pumps to allow kids to access and use their washrooms.
3. The police, along with the NGOs in the area, should make a combined list of the street children they need to keep an eye on and protect them from exploitation of any kind.
4. Eateries, hotels, and restaurants should earmark a portion of their profits to distribute free food among the street children in the area.
5. Special ‘children-friendly’ desks and sections in police stations and government hospitals can lend a sense of ease and comfort to these children. This will go a long way in ensuring their rights and their assimilation in mainstream society.
Guidelines for NGO Shelters
1. Most of the homes don’t provide shelter and care after a child turns 18 and becomes an adult. I feel that some homes should be built to provide requisite care for those adults who are still not independent. These adults should also be assisted in pursuing their education as long as they don’t achieve a basic level of self-independence. For females, NGOs should also extend their assistance if they want to get married.
2. Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras should be installed in NGO homes to keep a tab on visitors and the staff.
3. A properly-functioning and effective grievance redressal system should be introduced and the identity of the plaintiff should be kept secret.
4. Bus permits should be granted to children (like the ones given to college-going students) to enable them to travel for free.
5. ‘Pocket money’ for buying personal necessities, such as undergarments or sanitary napkins, should be a must, especially in the case of female kids.
6. To bring transparency in the functioning of NGO shelters, the inmates should be allowed to see how many funds were received in their name and how the funds were spent.
7. The NGOs should also assist the kids in getting jobs, once they are released.
India needs radical reforms in its laws and policies to make them more child-friendly. It also needs to devote and allot more resources in reducing the number of children living in streets and improving their living conditions. The government needs to introduce schemes to rein in elements who harass, abuse and beat the street children. It should also take necessary steps to check the growing crime rate among the children.
Image used for representative purposes only.