School of Hard Knocks


Street kids quickly learn to fend for themselves, but they could still use a helping hand, says Saket Tiwari

Kamakshi stands by the busy road ina threadbare salwar kameez, holding out a few ballpoint pens to passing motorists and pedestrians. “I must sell these pens, so I can eat,” insists the young girl, “and alsofeed my siblings.”

Bangalore’s streets are home to thousands of children like Kamakshi. “We come across such children usually when we catch them doing some small illegal activities like theft or chain snatching,” says M Kirishna, inspector at City Market police station. “Or sometimes we find them after a missing complaint is registered against them. We straight away give them to Bosco Mane and they look after them and decide what to do with them. We help them in whatever manner we can.”

Bosco Mane, an NGO that has been helping rehabilitate street children for the past 30 years in Bangalore, estimates that every day about 20 children are rescued from some of the city’s hot-spots: Majestic Bus Stand, City Railway Station and City Market.

Who are these children and where do they come from? The 2011 Census of India categorises about 11 million children across the country as street children. A survey the United Nations Children’s Fund confirmed these estimates but suspects the real numbers are significantly higher.

But they both agree that these kids grow up without access to basic shelter, education, healthcare services or essential nourishment. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and some end up living off petty crime or joining criminal gangs

“Children found on the streets are suffering from various types of problems,” says an official of Bosco Mane.“We cannot generalise, because every home has its own kind of problem. But, this is a very serious issue because childhood has been compromised due to domestic violence, economic problems, fights between parents and some other major issue due to which they leave home.”

There is also the possibility that someone we met yesterday selling balloons on the street might have a home somewhere in the city to which she might return in the evening and handover the day’s earnings to her parents.

There arechildren who are part of organised begging cartels, run by adults who use them but also give them a share in the proceeds to help them make their way in the big city.“Not all of them are street children in a strict sense of being homeless. Some part of the street population also gives space to people who control begging and earn lots of money through it,” says Deepa Vasanth Kumar, an activist with Bosco Mane.

One of the biggest magnets for homeless children across the country is the ‘City of Dreams’ – Mumbai. Several kids reported missing in various parts of India are later found on streets of Mumbai, either begging or playing and robbing people in crowded places.

“Not all children we see on the streets are street children because most of them have a home. But, mostly theones we see on railway stations or around bus stands, and other spots from where migration is easy, or thosewho have run away from their homes can be called real street children,” says Amin Sheikh, who runs an NGO for street kids.

Not long ago, Sheikh was himself a street child. Sheikh’s mother left his father because of his drinking habit andremarried.He didn’t do well in his studies and his step-father would beat him regularly with whatever he could lay his hands on. He soon ran away from home and started begging for a living.

“When I was a child, I didn’t have anyone around me. I had left my home as my stepfather used to beat me unconsciousness. I don’t even remember my exact age but, I can remember that various men had raped me several times. It was horrible and daunting time,” recollects Sheikh.

He worked making safetypins, sold books, and worked for a tea vendor. When he was working with the safety-pin maker, he remembers he used to earn Rs.1 for working ten hours a day while working as a tea vendor all that he could earn was 40-50 paise per day.

But Sheikh’ luck changed. His life on the street endedwhen Snehasadan, an NGO in Mumbai that looks after street children, placed him with Eustace Fernandes as a house help. Fernandes had a sister in Barcelona would he wouldvisit every twoyears.

Every Christmas, Fernandeswould give Sheikh a present. OneChristmas Day,when he askedthe boy what he’d wanted, Sheikhreplied, “Take me to Barcelona!” Today Sheikh runs an NGO named Soy Graciasati (I am,thanks to you) in Spain and has written an autobiography,Life is life: I am, because of you.It has sold nearly35,000 copies in India and has been translated into 8 languages.

Sheikh has launched a café named Bombay to Barcelona in Marol, Mumbai, where he employs kids from Snehasadan. Says Gopala, a boy fromSnehasadan working in the cafe, “I would have been forced to do different things had it notbeen for this. I would have spent my whole life on street because I’d run away from my home and didn’thave any place to live. Not all children have been as fortunate as me.”

Every year, Sheikh takes two or three kids from Snehasadan to Soy Gracias a ti in Barcelona to give them an idea of the distance he’s travelled and to show them there are kids like them all over the world, all of whom could achieve wonders with a helping hand.

This year he’s taking Gopala and Sadiya from Snehasadan.“We need to give these children unconditional love and help. After all everybody has a right to life, andthesekids are full of innovation and creativity,” says Sheikh.

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