They know what makes them happy, but if you don’t ask, street children won’t tell, finds out Sanjana Chappalli

Photos: S. Radhakrishna

A CARD GAME is underway on top of an abandoned building in Bengaluru’s busiest shopping center, Commercial Street. It is past one in the afternoon. Engrossed in the game, Roshan and his friends don’t notice the blazing sun. Perched on small bundles of clothes, each clutching his cards, the boys look like they are in their early teens. Cigarette stubs, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles are strewn everywhere. As rag pickers, the boys have spent the morning collecting these items. Later in the evening, they will sell them before returning to the abandoned building.

The veneer of freedom that marks the lives of children like Roshan is in fact wafer-thin. It barely masks the economic fragility, drugs and violence that engulf thousands of street children every day. Even as their lives continue to fuel and inspire award-winning films like Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire, they continue to lead precarious lives.

Addressing these violations is a challenge for child rights activists. The government’s blinkered approach does not help, says Arlene Manoharan, a child rights practioner at Bengaluru’s National Law School of India University. “For the state, dealing with street children often means forcefully removing them from the streets, using the police,” she says. “The children are taken to rehabilitation centres or welfare homes. In an attempt to wean them off drugs, they are subjected to strict routines. At the first possible opportunity the children escape and return to the streets.”

‘AS ADULTS, WE ALWAYS ASSUME THAT WE KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR THE CHILD,’ SAYS FONESCA

Does this mean that children prefer living on the streets to stability and security? Father Placido Fonesca, who has spent 40 years working with street children in Mumbai, disagrees. What is lacking, he says, is respect and recognition of the child’s right to participate. “As adults, we arrogantly believe that we know what is best for the child. So, we don’t involve them in taking decisions about their own lives,” says Fonesca. His organization, Sneh Sadan, runs 300 homes across Mumbai where street children are encouraged to spend time and integrate within a created family structure, if they so wish. Operating as “safe spaces” that provide food, shelter, security, these homes do not make too many demands on the child.

IN BENGALURU, Hasiru Sangha, a children’s collective, has struck roots among the city’s 60,000 street children. Initiated by Association for Promotion of Social Action (APSA), it encourages children to define issues important to them. 12-year-old Johnny walked into the Sangha three months ago to find children only slightly older than him organising a de-addiction camp. Within a week, he stopped sniffing erasex – the liquid whitening eraser. Ask Johnny what comes next and he does not know. “Perhaps learning to repair bikes,” he says.

“We will have to respect his decision rather than hand him a prescribed formula of school education,” says Sheila Devraj, director at APSA. “Over time, Johnny will hopefully learn a skill that will employ him. Or he may decide to join school. We have to create those opportunities, give them the information and let them decide if we want a longterm approach to rehabilitation of street children.” Admittedly, it is easier said than done. Most child rights experts agree that the longer children spend on the street, the harder it is to get them off it. Adopting an individual approach towards every child, by taking into account age, maturity and the trauma faced, becomes crucial.

At 1.1 crore, India has the largest number of street-dwelling children, below age 18, anywhere in the world. Shouldn’t that be reason enough for collective action?

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I Saw Films About How People Get Cancer Because Of Smoking. I Stopped That Day. I Don’t Want To Die

MY MOTHER gave me a name, Sadiq, that means friend in Arabic, and then hit me constantly because I had too many friends. I remember asking Allah why he was playing such a cruel joke on me. I asked my oldest brother too but he just hit me for asking stupid questions.

When I was about six years old, my father left us. He woke up in the morning, told us that he was leaving for work and never returned. I cried that night because I had not seen him leave in the morning. My mother had to take care of six of us. My older brothers started working but my mother decided to send me to school.

I hated school. I wanted to work with my brothers. My mother refused to send me with them. So I would leave home in the morning and pretend I was going to school. Once outside, I played with my friends, travelled by bus to see different places in the city. Sometimes I wouldn’t go home for two or three days. When my mother found out that I was skipping school, she hit me badly. I left home that day and never went back.

Once on the streets, my friends and I used to steal to eat. Sometimes when we were very hungry, we begged. But mostly we just played all the time. I had a lot of friends who taught me various things including different languages. I learnt Tamil from my years on the street. I started smoking cigarettes as well. My brother once caught me smoking and tried to hit me. He tried to take me back to my mother. I just escaped.

About three months ago, I got caught while stealing from a house. I had no money at the time and I was desperate for cigarettes. They handed me over to the police.

I called the children’s shelter at the time and they came and rescued me. I live with them now. After coming here, I saw films that showed how people who smoke (stumbles over the word) get cancer. I stopped that day. I don’t want to die.

Now, I learn how to dance and paint every day. And then there are English and Kannada classes. I met with my mother sometime back and she was very happy to see me. But I want to live here now.

Mohammed Sadiq is 12 years old and lives at Namma Mane, a children’s shelter run by Association for Promotion of Social Action. He spent seven years living on the streets.

This article was originally published in Tehelka, a leading independent news magazine in India, known for its investigative journalism. 

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