2 Mar 2008, 0000 hrs IST,Meenakshi Sinha,TNN
The Fatehpuri night shelter for street children near the heavily congested Old Delhi Railway Station is quite a contrast to the chaos outside.
Around 20 children, aged between 12 and 16, are gleefully watching cartoons on a television set placed in the middle of a spartan hall painted bright pink.
There’s a wooden table and chair for the caretaker, neatly piled beddings for the children and a wall covered with graffiti. There is also a cubicle, around three by three feet, at the far end.
This red-and- yellow enclosure is the Children’s Development Bank (CDB) — run by street children, exclusively for street children.
As soon as the bank opens at 6:30 pm (unlike regular banks, CDB operates only in the evening because street children work during the day), its young customers line up to make withdrawals or deposit their day’s earnings.
Thirteen-year-old Durgesh waits patiently as the cashier — who is as old as Durgesh — makes an entry in his passbook and hands him a note of Rs 50.
Apart from his daily expenses and an occasional movie outing, Durgesh is saving up hard to go home. "The bank is a safe place to deposit my money," he says.
There are many like him — runaways from desperately poor rural homes who join the big city’s floating population of ragpickers and street vendors. "Most of them are boys; there aren’t many girls on the streets," says Suman Sachdeva, development manager of Butterflies, the NGO behind the initiative.
The bank opens for an hour everyday — a busy time for its manager-cum-cashier, a nominated child volunteer who runs the affairs. The job is rotated every six months, giving youngsters (usually in the 12-14 age group) a chance to learn accounting and be responsible with money.
Ajay Kumar, 13, who’s currently in charge of the Fatehpuri branch, came to Delhi from Chamoli district in Uttaranchal over a year ago.
Dressed nattily in navy blue trousers, sweater and white shirt, with hair neatly combed back, he looks every inch the typical branch manager. Studying in fifth standard at a school nearby, Ajay has been running the show for four months now.
"Daily savings range anything between Rs 150 and Rs 300," he says.
Initially, CDB’s little employees were trained by HSBC in the basics of banking. Children were taught how to maintain cash, ledgers and passbooks.
"They were also taught how to budget their earnings and the value of saving. Earlier, they spent all their earnings on watching films," says Sachdeva.
Launched in 2000, with Rs 2 lakh as seed money from the National Foundation for India, CDB began with a membership of 20. These street children agreed to be part of the project because no mainstream bank would give them entry.
This core group also framed the rules and regulations. Any working child, for instance, can approach the bank — except those who are in the habit of stealing, begging, selling pornographic material or substance abuse.
Like any bank, CDB too has two kinds of accounts —jama khata (savings account) where a minimum of Re 1 can be saved, and chalta phirta account, which is the current account. Members get a 3.5% interest return on their savings.
"All this assures children that their hard-earned money is in safe hands. It’s their own wealth and they can access it anytime. And it comes at absolutely no cost," says Sachdeva.
The bank also sanctions advance loans linked to vocational skills. A committee of nine members (comprising NGO volunteers and children) assesses the requests during monthly meetings.
"These loans have played a special role by empowering girls, who would otherwise be pushed into prostitution," says Sachdeva. A few girls with skills in embroidery and tailoring have got loans to start businesses of their own.
Over the years, this streetside story has travelled way beyond the Capital. In the first year, membership grew from 20 to 800 at the Fatehpuri centre alone. At present, the bank operates from three night shelters and 14 contact areas in Delhi. But its network is spread all over: parks, bus stations, and pavements.
In 2004, other NGOs tied up with CDB which branched out to Chennai, Leh and Kolkata. In Muzaffarpur, Bihar, sex workers’ children joined the bank. In the Andamans, CDB was already operational when the tsunami hit the islands. It has even branched out to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Others like Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia may join this year.
The bank, which has international training meets and online support, now boasts a membership of 8,000 across India.
The Capital alone has 1,700 members, with savings amounting to Rs 1.5 lakh.
Of course, membership ceases when the child turns 18. The youngster has the option to either close the account or shift to a mainstream bank (Andhra Bank and ICICI are affiliates). Until then, they’re happy banking on CDB — their security blanket in an insecure world.