Journeying into dark lives of India’s street kids
By Nayanima Basu, Indo-Asian News Service
New Delhi, Jan 22 (IANS) Shekhar Saini ran away from his village in Bihar because he could not bear the extreme poverty his family was facing. In the hope of making it big in the city, he found his new home on the ever-teeming platform of the New Delhi railway station.
Today Saini, 21, is a role model in his village. This is not because he left his home in his teens, but because he is giving back to the unlikely community of street children. He works as a tourist guide, taking inquisitive tourists, mostly Western backpackers, through the busy and choking railway platforms to give them a first-hand experience of how street kids beside the railway tracks live.
Saini’s fellow colleague, another tourist guide Javed Khan, also a runaway, came to Delhi to see the grand historical monuments at the age of nine. He ended up in a dry sewer, got stabbed and was taken to gang leaders who wanted to train him to pick pockets.
Both Saini and Khan got saved and became what they are today as suave tourists guides because they got a shelter home in the Salaam Baalak Trust, a Delhi-based NGO.
The trust conducts a tour for Rs.200 (about $5) per head almost five times a week to offer a sneak peek into the inconspicuous lives of these street kids who otherwise don’t get noticed.
These poor kids flee their homes for a better life in the huge metros and get gobbled up in the narrow by-lanes, or stinking sewers of the railway stations or bus-stops which are, according to one estimate, home to some 3,000-odd poor young runaways.
They trade leftover drinking water bottles to watch the new movie that comes in the nearby Sheila movie theatre on Fridays. One uncrushed bottle fetches them up to Rs.2, whereas a crushed bottle brings a paltry 50 paise.
Sometimes they also pick up leftover fruits from trains and sell them to the juice-sellers in the platform and earn money.
"I always used to hear how child labour has become prevalent in India and everyone is so complacent about it. But after seeing what they go through so closely, I am absolutely appalled," Elizabeth, 53, a tourist, who has come from Denmark to visit her son who works in Delhi, told IANS, while shaking hands with the kids who queued up to shake hands with her.
The children, according to Saini, often fall prey to gang leaders who sometimes sexually assault them or get them into drug addiction. If by chance they escape from the clutches of gang leaders, they are not spared by the railway police who beat them without any reason.
"All this hype about double-digit GDP (gross domestic product) is good, but I am sure that is not going to trickle down to these poor kids," Kristian Nielsen, an intern with the Danish embassy, said while taking photographs of the kids studying maths on a dilapidated roof-top of a shelter home run by the trust.
The children often sleep in the gaps between the overpass and the roofs of the platforms where they play cards during leisure time.
"Once one of my friends had a fight with another boy while they were playing cards and he threw away the cards in anger. The other friend of mine in an effort to collect the cards got electrocuted because of the overhead wires," Saini narrated with pain writ large in his big dreamy eyes.
For girls the situation is much worse, Saini says, as they often fall into the hands of pimps who sell them at throwaway prices in the G.B. Road area, notorious for its seedy red-light district.
Saini earns Rs.2,500 ($56) a month, which he says is "not enough" to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Saini has done many plays in theatres and is a high-ranking student at the National School of Drama.
Also a part-time dancer, Saini speaks fluent English sprinkled with American accented words for the foreign tourists so that he can get them to donate funds for the trust.
"Today my parents are proud of me because they can see what I have become. I want all such kids who run away from their homes and poverty to turn out like me," stated Saini with a sense of pride as he manages his "Shah Rukh Khan-like" hairstyle.
Javed Khan, now completing his graduation from Delhi University, wants to work with the UN as a social worker and so intends to do a masters in social work after this.
"There are more than 200,000 children in Delhi who run away from their homes and live in such shelters," says Praveen Nair, co-founder, Salaam Baalak Trust, who started this organisation after her daughter Mira Nair, a celebrated filmmaker, got international acclaim for "Salaam Bombay" – a movie on street kids.
"Fifty percent of funding comes from international agencies and the government. But for the rest of the funding, we have to struggle a lot," Nair told IANS.
"In our shelter homes we get 300-400 children a month, some of whom we repatriate but for others we need to take care," Nair added.
Not every kid is as lucky. But as Saini’s favourite line goes, "Let’s move on from here."