Participants get a briefing before a guided tour through the streets of Delhi, led by a child who was once living and working on the streets Image Credit:

Their haunting eyes conceal the tell-tale signs of shattered innocence; of a childhood come to an abrupt halt. Hidden behind their endearing smiles are tales of abuse and deprivation; of exploitation and deeply entrenched emotional scars. As they press their faces against car windows at traffic signals or nudge you on crowded streets for money, they are dismissed without even a cursory glance.

It is an irony that one of the most visible aspects of urban India — its street children — live a largely ‘invisible’ life. At night, they take shelter under flyovers and bridges or at railway stations and bus depots, and on the pavements or shop verandahs. Before the crack of dawn, they disappear into the teeming milieu in crowded areas as they continue with the daily struggle of survival — one day at a time.

Adding to this cloak of invisibility has been the lack of definitive statistics on the numbers of street children across the country. A Unicef report estimates that there are 11 million children living on India’s streets. In New Delhi, the country’s capital, that number is estimated to range from about 50,000 to 100,000. It is difficult to estimate exact numbers as mobility levels of these kids are very high.

Where do these children come from? How do they live? Why have they made the streets their home? And what do they do to support themselves?

It is questions like these that lead us on a walking trail with Salaam Baalak Trust, a non-profit and non-governmental organisation dedicated to the care and protection of neglected street and working children. Aimed at sensitising the general public on the lives of these children, the guided tour promises to give participants an opportunity to view the streets through the eyes of those who once called this dark underbelly home.

“Not all families are happy families”

With this poignant remark reminiscent of a Tolstoy masterpiece, Devraj, our young 19-year-old guide from SBT, opens the door to a dialogue on why and how children from across India end up on the streets in urban cities. Seeking to know more, we — a motley group of Western and Asian tourists, and Indian expatriates — follow the twinkling-eyed Devraj as he leads us to a deserted bylane in the Paharganj area in suburban New Delhi. As we make our way into the mud lane to escape the chaos of the traffic, he warns us not to give money to beggars — adults or kids. Offer them food instead, he advises.

We gather in a quiet corner as Devraj explains how bonded labour, harsh working conditions, physical and sexual abuse, poverty and unemployment cause children to run away from their homes. Many are abandoned by their families too.

“For children in the rural areas, the city is a Promised Land,” he elaborates. “It is the place where you can make things happen. Influenced by movies, they believe a city is where they can escape the adversities of life.”

Street children fall under two categories, he explains further. “Children ‘on the street’ may return home to their families each night after a day of begging or selling wares while children ‘of the street’ are homeless, have no adult supervision or the support of a family. The street is their home and their lives, an intense daily struggle.”

As we move on, Devraj asks us: “What do you think street kids spend money on?” We think of the most basic necessity for survival and answer in unison: food.

He shakes his head. “No, food is easy to get on the streets. You get free food any time of the day at Sikh gurudwaras (temples) in the city; you can open drawers and steal food at railway stations as well.”

We are baffled to learn that it is entertainment and cheap, toxic drugs that street kids splurge on. “The street is not a safe place for anyone, let alone kids,” he explains. “Any money earned during the day can be stolen or extracted forcibly by others. Where do you store money when you have nowhere to live? It has to be spent by the end of the day. Children therefore binge on Bollywood movies and transport themselves into a fantasy world, even if for just a short while.”

The theatre is also a ‘safe’ refuge, he adds, as it shields them from the prying eyes of the police or exploitative adults.

Substance abuse addiction is what takes up another chunk of the earnings, he points out. “While some do hard drugs, most street children — even 6-year-olds — sniff harmful chemicals like industrial glues, easily available at stationery stores, for a brief escape from reality. These also dampen hunger pangs and ward off cold.”

No street child is ever far from violence, states Devraj. “Hence, working in groups is the only way to survive. Be it rag picking, cleaning cars, polishing shoes, sleeping or even pickpocketing, children work in groups, never alone. The ‘gang’ is their family, it offers a form of protection against undue exploitation.”

Children often earn more than Rs 200 (Dh10.35) per day. For ragpickers, sifting through garbage and collecting recyclable material such as a kilo of paper fetches them Rs 15 while it is Rs 30 per kilo for bottles.

We now make our way to Dal Mandi Chowk, the main bazaar, and crisscross through narrow alleys, dodging people, vehicles and animals while Devraj warns us to look out for “landmines” — cow dung and dog poo. As we jump over deep potholes and sidestep trash, he stops to point out a wall lined with images of deities and religious symbols of different faiths. “An ingenious idea that has successfully stopped the practice of public urination in that lane,” he laughs.

We pass by hole-in-the-wall restaurants where cleaning and cooking are done near open drains, and see first-hand children engaged in rag picking, some of them inhaling glue as they breathe in the fumes from a solvent-soaked piece of cloth. Devraj warns us to avoid eye-contact with them, and to watch out for pickpockets as we begin to cross the busy thoroughfare to the New Delhi railway station.

More than 400 trains start, end, or pass through this station daily, and thousands of runaway children land on its 16 platforms every year with nothing but hopes and dreams. Because of its large network, the railways makes escape possible even from the farthest corners of the country.

Alone and helpless, these children form the perfect prey for anyone — from paedophiles and traffickers to middlemen who befriend unsuspecting kids and force them to work at sweatshops in the city. “For girls, their gender makes them more vulnerable,” says Devraj. “Unscrupulous pimps lure even minors into brothels for commercial sex work, which is why you see so few girls on the street.”

On average, 5 to 7 such children are rescued daily by SBT’s social workers and taken to its contact centre within the station premises. A few years ago, Devraj was one of them. Originally from a small town in Nepal, his father, a farmer, moved to a village in Gujarat on India’s west coast for better opportunities. “Always high on drugs, the verbal and physical abuse he inflicted on my sisters and me was unbearable. I was 14 when he left home. I worked as an office cleaner-cum-tea boy to support my family. But I was restless; I dreamed of a better life and so boarded the train to New Delhi, hiding in the washroom as I was ticketless,” he recollects.

Living on the platform was not easy, he remembers. “I didn’t know the language, was alone and scared. I ate whatever scraps came my way and slept at night under the cover of an old railway engine. One day, an old lady took me to the nearby gurudwara and since then, I never had to beg for food.”

A few weeks later, SBT took him into their shelter home. “On the streets, we look upon shelter homes as ‘jails’ as kids do not want to give up their freedom for a life of routine where they have to bathe, go to school, and give up their addiction habits.”

SBT, has since, reunited Devraj with his family and helped him complete his formal education. “Today, I enjoy working as a guide as I can spread awareness on the plight of street children and motivate others to keep off the streets.”

We climb a flight of steps to the SBT’s contact centre where we find several children playing board games. These kids spend the day here and are fed, provided medical care and are also involved in vocational activities that prepare them for a life outside the street.

We also meet three kids who have been rescued that morning. A 12-year-old says that he left home because his family forced him to do hard labour including carrying heavy loads of cargo all day. He had been living on the railway platform for a month.

Getting a child off the platform or street is not an easy task, says the SBT coordinator at the contact centre. “These are children whose trust and faith in adults has been broken. We can only persuade and motivate them to come with us; we cannot force them. But the longer they are on their own, the higher the risk of abuse and the harder it is to reintegrate them into mainstream society.”

“Our first task is to encourage them to share their stories with us and reunite them with their families if they desire to go back,” she adds.

We make our way through the chaotic streets once again to visit the head office of Salaam Baalak Trust, housed in an old building. Around 30 children between 5-14 years are engaged in art, play and study. There is laughter and smiles all around and we are welcomed by the joyous cacophony of children reading, talking and playing. The kids proudly show us some of the artwork they have done — a house, animals, and their family. We join in for board games, help with writing the alphabet and working on the computer.

This is the place for non-formal education, and some of the children are from the nearby slums who would otherwise have been sent to work, explains Devraj.

I look at the chart of ‘success stories’ hung on the wall and find pictures of children who have now become a choreographer, fashion designer, photographer, engineer, puppeteer, amongst others. Some children have voiced their ‘dreams’ too and aspire to be doctors, teachers, even Superman and Harry Potter. To the world outside, these marginalised children may be non-existent but here at the Salaam Baalak Trust, they are provided the wings to dream, hope and soar.

Sangeetha Swaroop is a writer based in Dubai.

Salaam Baalak Trust’s guided two-hour City Walks (Rs 400/Dh20.54) are held Mondays through Saturdays from 10am onwards. All funds raised through this programme are directly used for the children. To know more, log on to salaambaalaktrust.com or email salaamwalk@yahoo.com