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Street superheroes

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Politicians love the poor, who make powerful votebanks. Not so India’s 18 million street children, who do not have the vote. The many laws and conventions that cover them have little meaning. Only a few NGOs are battling for streetkids, with some like RLHP in Mysore reporting great success in educating and rehabilitating them

Raju ran away from home when he was barely seven.  His father had put him to work in a welding-cum-bicycle repair shop. It was not the hard work that bothered Raju. It was the daily beating from the owner of the shop. The last straw was when the boss burnt him with a welding torch as punishment for a minor mistake. A customer complained that the last puncture repair did not last  very long. Smarting  from  the  pain  and  the  injustice of  the  cruel  punishment, Raju jumped on a train headed for Bangalore. Sitting  bewildered  and  hungry on  the platform, eating  leftovers  given  to  him  by a compassionate  railway  porter, he was   chased by a lathi-wielding policeman. The  terrified  village  kid ran  for  his  life  and jumped on another train,  this one  bound  for Mysore. He  arrived there and before he knew what was happening, was part of a gang of children begging on the streets of the palace city. 

Asha doesn't remember a life off the street. As far as she can remember she and her mother always lived on the street. Her mother was mentally unstable and together they made a living begging on the streets. 

Rajesh was eight when he and his younger brother were separated from their parents at a temple jatra (festival procession) in Mysore. Lost in the crowds they sought shelter that night in the shadow of the temple. The next few weeks they wandered around lost and bewildered, looking for their parents everywhere. One day a very nice woman stopped and talked to them – she took them both home and she and her husband tried hard to find their parents. As the weeks grew to months with no chance of finding their parents, the family, being childless, more or less adopted the two boys. They helped in the house and started going to school as well. One day his brother fell ill and was taken to hospital. He never came back. Nobody told Rajesh anything –  when he insisted on knowing where his brother was the woman said he fell sick and died. Rajesh could not bear it. He ran back onto the streets. 

The stories continued – one after another, 11 young boys and girls described the circumstances that led them to become one more of the millions of children  roaming India's wealthier city streets, unprotected by law or society. These are India's infamous street children. 

I met these children in incredibly unlikely circumstances. They were standing up and speaking to a group of 20-odd, mainly British, students at a course, Development From the  Inside. These students had listened to lectures for two solid weeks from NGO veterans speaking on a range of subjects from public health to the situation of adivasis and dalits in the country. The course was  tough. Listening to the  plight  of safai  karmacharis (manual scavengers),  seeing  dowry victims  dying  in  the burns  ward of  a  Bangalore  hospital, taking  in  maternal  and  infant  mortality statistics,  is  a  draining process. As  is  watching films  that document  tales  of injustice,  wretchedness,  misery  and  woe. The  street  children’s  tales  left  everyone  struck, yet the  kids  were  not in  victim  mode.  They radiated vitality and  reached  for  the  stars. They revived  the students’  drooping  spirits. 

India has no dearth of policies and plans to protect the interests of children. Starting with the Constitution, Article 15 affirms the right of the state to make special provisions for women and children, while Article 24 provides that no child below the age of 14 shall be employed to work in any hazardous industry. Article 39 of the Directive Principles of State Policy provides that children of tender age shall not be abused and that they should not be forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength and that childhood and youth are protected “against exploitation, and against moral and material abandonment”. It goes on to state that children should be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. It also requires the state to provide free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14. 

It doesn't stop there. As a follow-up to this commitment and being party to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child 1959, India adopted the National Policy on Children in 1974. The policy reaffirmed the constitutional provisions and stated that "it shall be the policy of the state to provide adequate services to children, both before and after birth and through the period of growth to ensure their full physical, mental and social development. The state shall progressively increase the scope of such services so that within a reasonable time all children in the country enjoy optimum conditions for their balanced growth." 

In 1974, the Government of India spelt out a National Policy on Children, declaring the nation's children “supremely important assets”. We then set up the National Children's Board.  In the wake of this, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) was launched nationwide and the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development was set up to provide training to ICDS officials. 

The Government of India ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on December 2, 1992. India is also a signatory to the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. 

We even have a Charter for Action for Children by 2000, backed by a detailed National Action Plan with special consideration for children in difficult circumstances. Almost all the states have also

developed State Action Plans. 

As for laws, we have a plethora – ranging from those specifically relating to the welfare and protection of children like the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, to a number of welfare and criminal laws which have within them special provisions for the care and protection of children. Even the laws relating to commerce, industry and trade have protective provisions for children. 

And yet India has the dubious distinction of having the world's largest population of street children – estimates range from conservative figures of 11 million to more likely figures close to 18 million

(Unicef, 1994). 

These are the children for whom the constitutional provisions, policies and conventions, the action plans and programmes, have no meaning whatsoever. Politicians love poor people – they form good votebanks. But not street children, who by definition are below the voting age. Invariably separated from their parents, they don’t have the advantage of even a proxy franchise through their parents. They are the truly excluded of our society. Outside the radar of our politicians and bureaucrats. NGOs across the country wage a fairly lonely battle when attempting to tackle this issue. But those who doggedly continue report that these kids are amazing. Given half a chance they exceed all expectations. 

Raju, Asha, Rajesh and the others speaking at the Development from the Inside course, were testimonies to this fact. These were children who were given a second chance by RLHP – an NGO that works in the slums and with the street children of Mysore. RLHP runs two homes – Asha Bhavan for girls and Asha Kirana for boys. Their staff roam the city's streets, befriending the children, and slowly giving them the confidence and courage to risk stepping into the unknown by moving into the homes. Here they begin with a special tailormade course that enables them to quickly join a mainstream school at their age level. Raju for example who had no education at all, was able to join class 5 after an unbelievably short seven-month crash course  in  the  bridge  class. He passed the 10th standard with a high first class and went on to university where he is now in his final year. 

When his secondary school results were announced Raju said he felt a sudden unexplained desire to see his mother. “Everyone at Asha Kirana and RLHP congratulated me and made me very happy. But somehow I wanted my mother to know I got a first. He had no idea where his village was. He only remembered the name and the fact that there was a railway station there. RLHP tried hard to find his family. They advertised. They travelled with Rajesh to a couple of villages of the same name. To no avail. “But this desire to see my mother would not go away. When I passed my 12th, again with a first class, it became unbearable. Everyone I met, I asked if they knew of a village by this name with a railway station. Finally a construction worker said there was a village like that in Andhra Pradesh.” One of the RLHP staff accompanied Rajesh to this village. The moment they stepped off the train, memories started flooding back. He remembered the way to his house – but when he went there the little shack they lived in was gone and big building stood in its place. He made his way to the cycle shop – and incredibly it was still there but fortunately not with the same owner. “The people there remembered my family and told me where they were now staying.” Excited, he went to the house and found that though his father had passed away, his mother was still alive. 

As he spoke of the reunion and how he brought his mother to Mysore and Asha Kirana where she stayed with him for a few months, there wasn't a dry eye in the audience. He is excelling at college and will finish this year. “What do you want to do when you finish?” someone asked. “I want to get a good job, rent a house and bring my mother to live with me.” 

Asha too got a high first, both in her secondary and higher secondary exams. She went on to do a diploma in secretarial and commercial practice.  After a stint as a receptionist at the awardwinning Green Hotel in Mysore, she went back to work with RLHP. Her mother is terminally ill but has been admitted to a good home where she gets palliative care and Asha is able to visit her often. 

Rajesh, yet another first class student, finished a degree course in automobile engineering and is now working with a car company. Recently he accidentally bumped into the woman who first met him and his brother on the street. She told him how she and her husband did not know how to tell him that his brother was seriously sick and that in spite of everything they tried to do to save his life, the  child died. They were heartbroken when Rajesh ran away again and they had looked for him high and low. Her husband had died and she now lived alone. Every time Rajesh comes to Mysore he visits her – his second home. Asha Kirana he says is still his real home. 

One by one, these remarkable stories unfolded. Stories of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Stories of heroes. No, superheroes – remember they are only children. These are children who look life squarely in the eye. Who ask for little. Just the freedom, the right and the opportunity to make a success of their lives.    

They spoke with no rancour, no bitterness, no anger. Not against their parents who abandoned or  sold them, or their employers who abused them. Not against the policemen and thugs who thrashed them, nor the venal society that pretends they do not exist. They laughed at the wealthy who quickly roll up their windows when approached by beggar  kids with outstretched palms at city traffic lights. 

Over the years – RLHP has managed to rescue and reunite over 1,000 children with their parents. Where either the family or social circumstances make it impossible for them to go back to their  home environments, they are looked after at the two homes. And RLHP is only one of the many organisations that work with street children. 

Though the problem is immense, and though the efforts of organisations like RLHP don't even touch the tip of the iceberg, when you meet the Rajus and the Ashas, rising phoenix-like from the   ashes of our society, you cannot help being touched, even moved to tears. Yet their stories inspire us. They remind us that the  human  spirit  can  and  will  endure. They leave us with an incredible sense of hope. Even  utterly  destitute  street  children  have  reached  for  the  stars and managed  to  realise their almost  impossible  dreams. 

No accurate estimate of the number of streetchildren in India is available right now. This is firstly because different government agencies as well as NGOs define street children in different ways. Secondly, they are a dynamic group of children who keep shifting from one place to another, and their association with NGOs is often not long-term. Many of them shift from one programme to another according to convenience. And thirdly, no serious effort to create a database of street children has been undertaken so far. 

¨ Unicef’s estimate of 11 million streetchildren in India in

1994 is considered to be conservative. 

¨It is estimated that there are 100,000–125,000 streetchildren each in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, with 45,000 in Bangalore.

¨  Aggrawal (1999) estimated that India has nearly 20 million streetchildren (approximately 7% of the child population) 

¨ The majority of streetchildren are boys (65 to 82%). Rane (2004) 

¨ 53.22 per cent children have been reported to have faced one or more forms of sexual abuse,  (Child Abuse: India 2007, a study by the ministry of women and child development.) 

¨ According to estimates, a child arriving alone at a railway station will be approached by a predator, maybe a factory representative seeking cheap child labour or a brothel owner, within 15 minutes (Saathi).   

Infochange News & Features, September 2009