Streetchildren speak

By Rashme Sehgal

Ten children's organisations, 20 photographers, 12 translators and the staff of Youthreach have worked for three years to put together a volume that records the prose, poetry, pain and desires of streetchildren across India-in their own words

Every day, all across India, an estimated 50 children escape the intolerable circumstances of their homes to begin lives on the streets. These kids become prey to all kinds of anti-social elements including drug peddlers and extortionist gangs who use them as messengers. Young girls are particularly vulnerable.

Delhi-based NGO Youthreach, founded in 1997, has been working to galvanise the private sector to reach out to these disadvantaged children. They have used publications, e-mail message, theatre and power point presentations to increase awareness about the lives of streetkids. They have just published a book titled `If I Were Rain', in which the children speak about their own lives - in the hostile terrain of railway stations and on the streets. They discuss the survival strategies they are forced to adopt, including young girls disguising themselves as boys to escape sexual harassment.

Youthreach points out that 10 million Indian children are surviving on the streets and several million are living in the slums that have cropped up in all our urban centres. This book tries to bring home to India's upper classes the world these children occupy. It aims to show that despite their disadvantages, these kids are intuitive, compassionate, loving and creative people. Twelve-year-old Rani, who has coined the title of the book, sums up their spirit when she says, "If I were rain, I would go where water cannot be found."

Twelve-year-old Jwalamukhi describes how he chose to make the New Delhi railway station his home after running away from home. "I arrived at the railway station and stayed. I found some food to eat. We work now and then and take a bath once in a while. We spend the money that we earn within the day. This is our home."

Fourteen-year-old Munnalal ran away from home to escape his father's beatings. He moved from one place to another, living on railway platforms and the street. He eventually met a social worker who took him to a children's organistion where Munnalal found refuge and support. Here he began leading a life that he values, living with other children who share similar backgrounds. Presently studying in Class 8 and pursuing his interest in art and acting he says, "When I was a child I used to steal. Once I was caught stealing. My father beat me badly and threw me out of the house. I have not returned home since. I stole because we needed money at home but now with God's grace, I have managed to stop stealing. Now, if I ever see kids on the railway station, I am reminded of my own time there and wish I could help them."

And then speaking about all the kids who are suffering this fate he says, "People without homes have so much sadness inside them. From the outside they may seem happy but no one knows what is going on inside."

Sometimes this pain can turn into a recurring nightmare as is the case with young Abdul whose friend fell off a train while travelling to Mumbai. Abdul says, "He was a good friend. Three or four days after the fall, he was still there -- dried to his bones. No one had done anything -- dogs were eating him, flies were all over ... I had to close my eyes."

This text is the result of a series of 45 workshops conducted to gather the testimonials of children across the country. Nanni Singh, Executive Director of Youthreach and editor of the book pointed out, "Since the children wrote in their mothertongue, we needed 12 translators to translate their writings into English and Hindi. These kids were approached via ten children's organisations including Salaam Balak Trust, Ankur, Butterflies, Navjyoti Delhi Police Foundation, Achinto, Nanhi Kali, Deepalaya, Hope Project, Karam Marg and Very Special Arts. We also took the help of 20 photographers and a core editorial team of 14 people who put in three years of labour to put this project together."

Singh adds, "We have tried to examine the hardship and the joys, the integrity and the exploitation, the strength and vulnerability, the frailty and tenaciousness that is intrinsic in the lives of kids who lead a highly marginalised existence."

The text has been interspersed with heart-wrenching photographs collated by photo editor Prabuddha Das Gupta. The photographers who have captured the world of these kids includes Amit Khullar, Dayanita Singh, Fawzan Hussain, Gurinder Osan, Manish Swarup, Neeraj Paul, Pablo Bartholomew, Santosh Verma, Swapan Parekh and Tarun Chhabra.

Youthreach's president Uday Khemka points out, "Through their voices, poetry and in-depth stories, these children share their hopes for the future. These individual works of art and creative expressions explores the wealth of intelligence and joy that is as much a part of their lives as their circumstances. The book therefore seeks support for each child from the standpoint of hope and possibility."

Youthreach is a partner to the American International Youth Foundation and provides a country-wide base for providing grants to children and youth foundations. The NGO helps create linkages between grassroots organisations and young people who would like to contribute as volunteers. For example Youthreach has got the employees of Grand Hyatt to teach computer skills to the children at Salaam Balak Trust and also to get them to train the teachers working at Deepalaya.

Ballarpur Industries has gone a step further and is encouraging their employees to take time off work once a week to volunteer with an NGO of their choice.

Youthreach took up over 300 volunteer projects last year. The whole aim of the exercise is to increase the safety nets for children. As Khemka says, "After a child has run away from home, he has an average of 20 minutes before he will encounter some form of abuse or exploitation. Our aim is to help prevent this. Our objective is to walk the bridge to a place that celebrates children for who they are, as they are and who they might become."

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based journalist)

(InfoChange News & Features, January 2004)