Finding home

Finding home

Above all, it is care that has shown to make a huge difference in the rehabilitation of street children.

Sumitra Thangavelu

Extended family: Karuppusamy (extreme left) and other members of the ICCW-run care home in Chennai.

Sumithra Thangavelu

Karuppusamy, 15, can be spotted playing chess inside the 24-hour shelter run by the Indian Council of Child Welfare (ICCW), Tamil Nadu under the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Integrated Programme for Street Children. Two years ago, this situation would have seemed unimaginable for the youngster.

Karuppusamy had run away from home in small-town Virudhachallam, Tamil Nadu, annoyed with his alcoholic father and psychologically weighed down by the constant jabs at him for being a good-for-nothing. On arriving at Chennai’s central bus terminus, he was spotted by a member of the ICCW monitoring team.

With counselling and care, Karuppusamy, now in class nine, has improved in academics and extra-curricular activities. . “He has a very expressive face, and is comfortable on stage. He is part of our street-theatre group, spreading messages on everything from resolving mind-conflicts to AIDS and healthy living. This has also helped him come to terms with some of his emotions,” says Jaya Mary, Project Officer of ICCW’s street-child scheme.

According to a Ministry report released last month, the street child project received financial support of Rs 10.16 crore during 2006-07, benefiting 32,931 street children. The project allocates grant-in-aids to NGOs working with street children and envisages reintegration with families, 24-hour drop-in shelters, non-formal education, preventing drug and HIV incidence, and vocational training among others.

But the programme is not without challenges, with NGOs and social activists expressing dissatisfaction over the absence of legislation, delay in sanctioning funds, and doubts over whether the funds were reaching the intended beneficiaries.

The Ministry defines ‘street children’ as those without homes and family ties, and those vulnerable to abuse and exploitation such as children of sex workers and pavement dwellers. Children living in slums and with their parents are excluded from its coverage.

“Street children are a different entity altogether, devoid of support systems. But many NGOs are taking in children living with families and call them ‘street’ children, with the result that only few are catering to the real street child,” says Thomas George, Communications Officer, UNICEF.

Reel effect

India has the largest number of street children in the world, estimated at 15-18 million, with around five lakh in Delhi alone. For long, these children remained on the fringes of social consciousness until Mira Nair decided to make a movie on their lives. Salaam Bombay, which was released in 1988, awakened the public conscience to the plight of these children.

The following year, Mira used a portion of the proceeds from the film to start the Salaam Balak Trust (SBT), considered to be India’s first formatted initiative for street children. The Government introduced the Scheme for Assistance to Street Children in 1993 under the Ministry for Social Welfare and Justice; in 1998 the scheme was renamed as Integrated Programme for Street Children. The programme was shifted to the Women and Child Development Ministry in 2006.

Under the programme, the Government allots a maximum of Rs 10.5 lakh in two instalments to selected NGOs, with a mandate to reach out to a minimum of 300 street children every year. Heenu Singh, Executive Director, SBT in Mumbai, says the money simply isn’t enough for NGOs working to keep children off the streets. Some NGOs complain of delays and say that the first instalment reaches them after nearly a year. “Rs 250 per child per year can’t buy them education, food, shelter. And there aren’t enough drop-in shelters,” she says.

SBT runs two full-time shelters and needs about Rs 50,000 a month to look after the 100-plus children housed in each shelter. It also runs four contact points, with 15-20 children each who are provided breakfast and tea every day. The contact points conduct education and health initiatives, and SBT plans to start two more soon.

“In June this year, we took about 60 children to Dehradun; it was a motivational exercise to bring in more street children into the programme. The trip cost us Rs 70,000, which we had to raise ourselves. More money under the programme will enable more activities, and increase our reach,” she says.

Need for laws

Then there is the question of legislation. The street-child programme aims “to realise the rights of the child enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000”.

In the absence of laws detailing rights for street children and the obligations of the State to ensure full protection, all programmes, schemes or projects for them are bound to fail, says Ashok Agarwal, senior lawyer of Delhi High Court and advisor to Social Jurist, a group of lawyers and social activists working for child rights.

Activists also want a re-examination of the existing programme and alterations to ensure that street children in every nook and corner of each State are identified, and mainstreamed according to their abilities. “The State is constitutionally obliged to act as model parents for such children but, unfortunately, they are victims of all types of abuses and the State is a mute spectator. There is no legal accountability of the State if a programme, scheme or project fails,” says Agarwal.

According to the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (NIPCCD) — the organisation that evaluated the street-child programme, the Ministry plans to merge the current street child programme with a broader Integrated Child Protection Scheme.

NIPCCD says a draft is being circulated for further reading and includes proposals for a Child Protection Officer at the district and State levels and that five pilot States — Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Mizoram and Meghalaya — have been identified for initial implementation. The Ministry is yet to announce plans for the merger.

Making a difference

Meanwhile, its 2006-07 annual report says that since inception, 3, 32,011 street children countrywide have benefited. That&rsq
uo;s just a tiny fraction of the lakhs of homeless children in the country. But those with access to food, clothing, shelter and activities under the current programme clearly demonstrate the difference it has made to their lives.

Care includes open-house sessions in which they are given a haircut, taught healthy living, and motivated to give up habits like smoking, alcohol and other addictives; sex-education especially AIDS awareness; vocational and academic training; and entertainment programmes including video shows, dramas and picnics.

Organisations like Salaam Baalak Trust even have a ‘Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk’ through the interiors of Pahargunj city and the New Delhi railway station area, with street children themselves as guides. The aim is to sensitise the public to their lives and help the children improve their communication skills and confidence.

Without such support, the street child is too often vulnerable to exploitation and end up in bonded labour, wrong company, beggary or prostitution. Karuppusamy is among those who have escaped this clutch of complete neglect.

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