A couple of weeks ago, I was returning from college with a friend of mine, with whom I was walking to the bus-stop nearby so she would catch the bus back to her hostel. Reaching the bus-stop, we were amazed by the sight of a ragged child sitting on the bus-stop pavement and from what it looked like, trying to work out something on a shabby looking exercise book. On close inspection, we found out that he was actually trying to work out complex multiplication problems. The child looked to be in no shape from studying something which I had particular difficulties in when I was a kid. He was obviously malnourished and appeared to be fighting with a bout of fever as well. My friend, a caring girl by nature and a crusader for social causes, immediately enquired about his condition. The boy was not too bothered about answering her queries and instead asked me, “Aapko pata hoga, Tera guna Saat kitna hoga?”
All the recent hype of Slumdog Millionaire aside, street children in India have always lived under extreme deprivation and pathetic living conditions. Yet, their desires and ambition often exceed the common “privileged” souls. Perhaps that is why 11 million children living in the streets of various Indian metropolises try to best the conditions they live in through whatever means they can, with dedication rivaling the top students in top institutions of our country. I have seen street children whose belief that their current position of employment as rag-pickers, chai-wallas, shoe-shiners, car-cleaners will lead them to the dream they came chasing after in the big cities.
This makes them a very easy target for exploitation and introduction into unsavory professions like organized crime, prostitution and drug peddling. For all the good work the NGO’s and the government (to some extent) have been doing, the suffering of the street children, in general, has not really reduced. Yet, they trundle on through their existence, trying to best all the hardships through whatever they do. In the process, apart from physical and mental exploitation, they suffer from severe issues regarding malnutrition, hunger and diseases like AIDS. Despite their best efforts to beat the extreme poverty they are subjected to, teething problems like these and that of lack of proper shelter, healthcare and most importantly, absence of nurture from parents become too big of a roadblock to overcome.
In terms of simple economics, rural-urban migration theory is perhaps the most readily given example for the large increase in the number of street children. But there are far more complex social issues at work for this problem. They include broken families, family abuse, becoming orphans, natural disasters, man-made disasters (like armed conflicts or political trouble) and perhaps the worst, abandonment by parents due to unwanted pregnancy or simply abject poverty.
As with many problems in a developing country as vast as India, there is no straightforward solution to the problem. There is no statistical model that specifies that if you push in X amount of money in a Street Children Welfare Programme, you cause the welfare of Y street children. But what I feel is we must all do our bit to help them out to the best of our abilities. While it maybe working with an NGO for some, or joining some voluntary teaching programme for the others. I am not saying even then we shall arrive at some solution, but we will never know unless we try our best.
Coming back to the story of me, my friend and the kid at the bus-stop, my friend was insistent on giving the child something to eat before he went back to the mathematics. So we fed him with a left-over sandwich she had for “emergency consumption purposes in the bus”. We chatted with the child for a while and found out that he had been convinced into joining a local free school by a social worker, but his poor parents, who preferred to have him work at a local tea stall, have effectively abandoned him for it. But he still dreams big that through studying one day, he will be rich and successful, although at present, he has no idea where is he going to stay tomorrow, how will his recurring bouts with fever be cured and when is his next square meal coming. We should allow these children to pursue their dreams without having to worry about the things that we take for granted.