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Experiences from the Streets of Delhi
Ummeed Aman Ghar Coordinator
Nisar Ahmad Sheikh
The phenomenon of street children is a growing concern in many developing states, particularly in India. Delhi is no exception to the general trend of children fending for themselves on the streets. However, very little is known about this unique population in Delhi. This study provides a general overview of the phenomenon of street children in Delhi. This is prepared after two month long internship with the organization Aman Biradari at Delhi in 2008 which particularly examines the experiences of street children in Delhi, how they ended up in the streets, how they survive in the streets, and abuses they suffer from being in the streets.
The problem of street children is a worldwide phenomenon. Many capitals and urban centers of the world have become a haven of survival for many children in distress. The street children phenomenon is an alarming and escalating worldwide problem. Street children are maltreated, imprisoned, and in some countries killed.
The phenomenon of street children, and offspring of the modern urban environment, represents one of humanity’s most complex and serious challenges findings point to a problematic phenomenon that is emerging and threatening the very fabric of our societal advancement. The problems facing the 21st century child is further increasing with the advancement in the modern world. This coupled with the growing disparity in incomes between the rural and the urban, and unequal development between the various regions of the country exacerbates the already difficult circumstances of deprived children.
The situation of children in India in the 21st century presents a challenge to all stakeholders in the society. The street children phenomenon has become one of the biggest problems of social welfare in most Asian countries. The condition of children living and working on the streets of most urban areas in India has assumed problematic dimensions because many people are beginning to identify with the situation as needing an urgent and pragmatic attention. Unfortunately, the realization of the problematic nature of the street children phenomenon has not corresponded with an aggressive response from governments to deal with the problem. The inaction of government is as a result of many factors. Among other things, there is subject to influences of several external economic dependency, most of the institutional apparatus that have been created in support of the state are immature or incomplete and are unable to fulfill the mandates that would offer the promise of broad social and political stability.
The social and political accountability of most Asian societies to these children is nonexistent and to a large extent not challenged either by internal or external elements. The plight of these children is thus left in their own hands or on some few Non Governmental Organization (NGOs) who are limited by their function and resources to deal effectively with the situation. The escalating proportions of children surviving on the urban streets in India should prompt an engagement among the various stakeholders in the society.
These children not only have limited access to basic resources, but in many instances have been denied the right to childhood. Their childhood has been threatened, invaded and polluted by adults. These children in many
instances are perceived as miniature adults and not as biologically immature human beings. Children are thus entrapped in the difficult situations of social, political and cultural misunderstandings.
In Delhi it is a common feature to see children ranging between the ages of 10 -15 years roaming the street and engaging in menial jobs for their survival. It is estimated that there are about 60,000 street children in the capital. But their visibility on the streets signals the enormity of the problem. The street children phenomenon in Delhi has become problematic because of the multiple factors of causality. Among them are rural urban income disparities, rapid urbanization, breakdown of the extended family system, single parenthood, and physical and sexual abuse. The problem of street children in India demonstrates the inability of the government and policy makers to comprehend the gravity of the situation. This is manifested by lack of official head count of the street children in India. It is even more precarious a situation because very little is known about these children including the causes, how the phenomenon is defined by the children, how the children are treated and their experiences as street children.
Who are Street Children?
The definition of street children is varied. The definition given by Inter-Non Governmental Organizations (Inter-NGOs) as “those for whom the street more than their family has become their real home, a situation in which there is no protection, supervision or direction from responsible adults.” This definition is considered simplistic. There have been argues that there should be a shift in the paradigm of analysis on the street child from the street as the primary focus to the children and their experience and views. Thus street children are not viewed in isolation from other children living in abject poverty in the urban areas. It has been seen that the ages of 9-18 years who spend the bulk of their time on the streets (ie. either working all day on the streets and returning home or sleeping on the streets without a responsible adult supervision and are not enrolled in any educational training or program) will be considered as a street child. A street children is defined “Children who have been neglected by their family, and have to struggle everyday to find food to eat” For many of the children in the study, street children were children of the street.
Experiences of Street Children
Street children have some of the horrific experiences, and one can only understand their circumstances by appreciating their experiences. While the immediate circumstances of all street children cannot be addressed to anyone’s satisfaction, their experiences when reported may ignite the appropriate responses from various stakeholders.
Ajay who is a 15 year old boy from Bihar intimated that; I used to live with my mother. When my mother and father divorced, I came on the street and face the reality of external world. When I got here, it was in the evening so I walked to the station near the Mosque. I saw a building and I slept there because other people were sleeping there. In the morning I met a boy from a nearby town who said he was a porter and that if I was strong enough to carry stuff, I will have money to buy food. He gave me a customer and the woman I carried the stuff for gave me Rs.50 and I used that to buy food.
Vijay a 14 year old boy from Rajasthan claimed that;
After my parent (mother) refused to take me back to school, my mother left leaving me with my grandmother. We had to go to the farm every day, and we had very little food to eat. I did not enjoy living in my village, so I went to Jaipur, which is a five hour walk from my village. After carrying goods at the market for a couple of days, I saved some money to board a bus to Delhi with my friend. We alighted at the market in the afternoon, and met some boys who showed us where we could find work.
While I was doing my field work in the Jamia Masjid area for street children in 2008. I met a boy a 10 year old boy called Deepak. He stated that;
I took my father’s money and picked up a car. First I made up my mind to go and see my mother. I met a boy at U.P and we started to move together. He stole tins of milk from the sellers we passed by on our way. He in turn went to sell them. His lifestyle was too risky for me, so I started working for a woman at the market who sold food. I will wash her dishes, fetch her water, and she in turn would give me food, and some money. Anytime that I was sick, she would buy me medicine. She is the only nice person I have known.
The experiences of every individual child are very different and unique in their own perspective. But they also share very similar characteristics.
Soman is a female aged 15 years. She came to Delhi at the age of 13 from Delhi, a placed called Gaya. According to Soman, The first time I came to Delhi was with my mother’s sister. She used to come and sell goods in Delhi. “We went back after four days. A couple of weeks later I decided to come back, this time on my own. Since I did not like school, and I did not want to stay in my village, I decided to move to Delhi. I sold oranges at the local market to get some money for my lorry fare to Delhi. I first boarded a transport from Gaya to Patna, and boarded one from Patna to Delhi. I alighted at station in the evening and roamed the market to find a place to leep.”
The story of next child whom I met at Connaught Place area of New Delhi was also very ordinary. Raju was in fact staying on the streets with his father. His father was incapacitated, and as a casual worker (temporary employee) did not have any benefits or retirement. They lost their housing and ended up sleeping outside the Government offices. According to Raju “We were (he and his father) sleeping on the corridors outside the Govt. offices. Because my father had worked there for several years, the watchmen (security) allowed us to sleep on the corridors.” He further asserted that although their sleeping place was secured “When it was raining, we had to stand till it stopped, and waited for the floor to dry before sleeping again” But there were other problems he encountered sleeping on the streets. Raju claimed that; during the winters it was so cold and the cloth I used to cover myself was not big enough to cover my whole body, this made me feel very cold at night. Also we were fair game for mosquitoes. Because of the many open drains around the area, there are so many mosquitoes, they really “fed on us”
These daily experiences of the children I met were in many ways were very similar. All of these children were living lives of extreme deprivation, but also in many respects everyone had their own unique twist to their experiences, and I try to capture some of these experiences in their own words. The daily experiences of the children defy every reasonable definition of a child. All the children in my study had gone through some traumatic experiences, which in many cases, are epitomized by abuse, be it physical, emotional or sexual. For these children negotiating the complexities of the hostile urban streets is an art of survival, and sheer guts.
Kalu is a 13 year of boy from a village Kaining in West Bengal. At the time I met him, he had only been here for five months, and there was no immediate indication that he was going back to his village. Although Delhi was very strange and chaotic for a rural child, the prospects outweighed the risk associated with living on the streets. Kalu maintained that;
I was at village and a friend of mine was coming to Delhi, so I told him to bring me along and he agreed. A little while after we got to Delhi, our money got exhausted, so we went begging. That day I got Rs.120. It was then I realized there was money to be made here, so I decided not to go back (Kalu). But how was his living condition in the streets of Delhi? According to Kalu “I sleep anywhere I get. If I get a cardboard I just spread it out and sleep on it”.
There is a popular place that many of the children I came into contact with were sleeping at night. Chandni Chowk is a major market and transportation center in Delhi with bustling business. This provides an attractive conduit for the children to earn their daily living by working as porters at the market. At night, this same place becomes a lodging place for the children. It is very convenient because they wake up in the early hours of the morning and start working right there. The most popular of their sleeping places is under the “Kodiya bridge”. The “Kudiya bridge” is a foot bridge across a major thoroughfare in Chandni Chowk .Beneath the bridge is where you will find many of the children sleeping at night. But the place is also a den for thieves and urban scavengers. And for new entrants like Kalu, the “bridge” could be a lion’s den for him. When I asked Kalu why he did not sleep at the “bridge”, he said;
When you sleep there (bridge) the older guys come with blades (razors) to cut your dress and strip you naked and steal your money so I hardly sleep there…..if someone attacks me, Ah! there is no one to report to…. I used to sleep under the overhead but because of stealing and extortion there, I now sleep at the cold store(Kalu).
There is no safe place for children in the streets of Delhi. As long as they sleep in the streets they are prone to abuse. Truly no one knows the extent of abuse these children are subjected to on the streets. This is mainly due to the fact that they never report these crimes for fear of further retributions. According to Kalu “at dawn people come to search your pockets, if they did not find any money they beat you up. They stop when you cry and plead with them.But if you don’t cry they will not stop beating you”.
The situation of girls in the streets is even more precarious. Apart from the general hardships of surviving on the streets, many of the girls endure the most gruesome sexual attacks on the streets. Because of the sensitive nature of their experiences, with respect to sexual abuse and rape, they do not talk about it openly. Also there is a lot of stigma amongst the children especially the girls if you were a victim of rape. A victimized girl street child is perceived by her peers as weak, and that her assault was her own doing. Reeta a 15 year old girl claimed that;
Sometimes the boys strip you naked when you are sleeping and rape you. Some of the girls agree to sleep with them and others don’t, so they wait till you are fast asleep. They come between 1 and 2 a.m. to strip you naked and do whatever they want to do to you. Reeta has been in the streets for the past 1½ years, and has no immediate plans to go back home, despite the harsh realities of her daily existence on the streets. Another girl child was 18 years old Rukhsana, who also had 9 months old baby girl. She was the one who don’t share with us anything except her name. Her reason was that, she did not want her voice to be anywhere she could not be. She was very untrusting, and had a hard time talking about her experiences. Aming all these children I talked during one month of my internship with these children, Rukhsana was the one with the longest experience on the streets. She had been on the streets for about 4 ½ years, and actually this was her second child. The first child died before the age of one. But she provided valuable insights into the difficulty of being a street child, as well as a girl. On how girls were treated at night on the streets, she claimed on the verge of tears that sometimes the boys invited girls to share a drink with them. After getting the girls intoxicated the boys will take them to an isolated place and rape them. She also mentioned that sometimes people just came and “pounced” on them while they slept.
The perspectives of the girls and boys on the issue of sexual abuse were interesting, and I want to share some of the sentiments of these, which also opens a window to the grim experiences of these children in the streets. According to Bunty, who had 3 years of experience on the streets of Delhi, many of the girls bring these problems upon themselves. He left home at the age of 12 years, and has been surviving on his own. He is well traveled, including aiding a blind man on a trip to Delhi to beg on the streets of Delhi. He asserted that, the girls collect money from the boys to have sex with them, they then runaway that is the girls, without performing their part of the deal.. There are prostitutes there you can pay to have sex with. As for some of the girls, the guys come to ask them to be their girlfriends. In that sense you can’t harass them if you give them money and they refuse you sex.
This is not in any way justifying the traumatic experiences of girls on the street. The atrocities against these children are not justifiable under any condition. However the contentions by the boys go to portray how girls in the streets are perceived as sexual objects. This perception increases the vulnerability of the girls, which makes them easy targets for sexual aggression. In fact the experiences of street girls in relation to sexual abuse on the streets are not peculiar to situation. The most common forms of abuse experienced by street children during the course of their work include harassment by the police and other law enforcement agencies, rape by some night watchmen, rape by street boys, commercial sexual exploitation, lack of food….and lack of sympathy or contempt from the public.
The insecurities experienced by the children on the streets prompt many of the children to arrange for their own protections on the streets. For the girls their best protection is to be in a relationship with a strong boy. The boys on the other hand have to bond together to avoid harassment, or sometimes pay for some older person to protect them. According to Rukhsana If you have a boy friend, it is much safer, because he will protect you from other boys. You sleep with him at night, and during the day, when he makes money, he gives you some. The girls who do not have boyfriends or anybody to protect them are those who get raped and beaten for sex at night. I have a boyfriend, he is the father of my child, and he gives me money everyday(Rukhsana)
Because the children are highly sexually active, many of the girls I came into contact with were already mothers at the age of 16..
The younger boys rely on the older ones for their protection on the street. Babu, a year old boy was protected by Deepak during the day. Babu, the youngest child I seen at the station and he had been on the street for just over a month..He ended up on the street when his mother lost him. At the time I met him, he looked unkempt with wounds all over his body. He claimed it was as a result of mosquito bites. Babu stated that;
I sleep at the old store with Deepak, and sometimes the older boys will come and take money from us. Sometime we have to pay them before we can get a place to sleep. If you do not pay, they will take your sleeping box from you, and there will be no place to sleep. When the older boys come we all get scared.
The children also reported how certain individuals (adults), were taking advantage of their situations. Some of these individuals collected money from the children on the name of providing security or providing some “services” for the children. The lives of these children have exposed them to all the possible ills in the society. They talk about drug use, prostitution and pick pocketing and other activities, which borders on criminality. The older boys usually used drugs, and common among these children was “solution and smack”
Many of these children have been deprived of their childhoods, and the skills available to them are those learned from the harsh realities of the streets. Their stories are not only compelling, but it gives them a voice, which has been buried from the major discourse of social and human development.
Street children in Delhi have formed some complex relationships to ensure their survival on the streets. For instance, they slept in groups and the more experienced children served as resource persons for newcomers.
The boys protected themselves by engaging in groups, the trade off for security for the girls is to be in sexual relationships with boys who could protect them. This unfortunately is producing a second generation of street toddlers. Many of the street girls I encountered were staying on the streets with their babies. There were also reports of drug use among some of the children.
The next challenge will be what the society needs do to ensure that this form of social and moral imitation is either eliminated or reduced to its barest minimum.
Special thanks to my colleagues and supporters
and all those children who share their experiences with me and all my colleagues of MSW who were with me during our internship.