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Shobhan Saxena,TNN Nov 6, 2011, 07.02 AM IST
The show begins at night. After the sun is swallowed by the smog and neon lights wash the city in yellow, Rahul and his gang emerge from under the flyover. They all look similar — grubby feet, frayed rags, scarred faces, red eyes and brassy hair. They are all under 11. Walking with the swagger of his favourite filmstar, the puny urchin produces a cigarette from his pocket, lights it and blows the smoke into the faces of six other kids who beg for a drag. But Rahul is high: one moment he is Dabangg; another, he is Romeo the kutta. Then he offers the fag to his buddies, but at a price. He punches one, yanks out Rs 5 from another's pocket, and then grabs Guddi, the only girl in the pack. She screams and giggles as he pulls her towards a dark corner. Then a boy shouts police' and the group vanishes into the dark garbage dump they call home.
These are India's invisible children who have fallen through the cracks. During the day, they sleep amid stinking waste and at night they collect plastic bottles, sell flowers, clean cars, beg or steal — all around a flyover in south Delhi. They all had a home once. They all have a story to tell, but they clamp up when asked about it. Rahul wants a dibba of "good boot polish" before talking. He eats it. "Otherwise, I can't sleep," says the 10-year-old who ran away from his home in Gwalior to escape an alcoholic father and a cruel stepmother. Others have similar tales: Guddi left home when her mother tried to push her into prostitution; Guddu's father beat him mercilessly; Raju was too scared of a teacher at school, and Pappu just got tired of hunger. They took a train to Delhi, got snuffed by gangs roaming the platforms and since then, it has been a story of rape, torture, drugs and starvation.
Last week, the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) came out with shocking figures of crimes against children: 5,484 children were raped and 1,408 others killed in India last year. In the Capital alone, 29 children were murdered and 304 raped in 2010. But these figures do not include even a fraction of crimes committed against street children. "Not even 10% cases of rape, sodomy or murder of street children are recorded. Who is going to file an FIR for these children who have been abandoned by society and trapped by gangs?" asks Prabhakar Goswami, director of i-India, a Jaipur-based NGO which runs a helpline for street children. "We go to the police when we come across such cases, but it's difficult to file an FIR as they don't take these cases seriously."
The NCRB figures are based on FIR and daily diary reports and, therefore, hide more than they reveal as the worst victims of child abuse are not counted at all. "Street children are abused — physically, mentally and sexually — on a daily basis. They get trapped in a cycle of abuse that leads to drugs and crimes, but no one is bothered," says Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, an NGO working for street children in Delhi. "In Delhi, there are at least five lakh street children, but in government records, less than 50,000 exist."
Numbers are the real problem. Though estimates range from one crore to four crore, nobody is sure how many children live on India's streets. "We demanded a count of these children during the current Census but the government refused. If their exact number is known, it's easier to protect them," says Gupta.
Another problem is the police. They are supposed to keep track of crimes against these kids, but end up always finding these children on the wrong side of law. The kids are routinely arrested, locked up and tortured. "The police are not sensitive enough to stop crimes against them. Though they may see a street kid being abused or forced to work, they do nothing to stop it," says Ramesh Kumar, a volunteer who has been working with street children in Mumbai. "For the cops, these kids do not exist."
The term "street child" did not figure in the official vocabulary of India until 1993, when under pressure from NGOs the government launched a Scheme for Assistance to Street Children" in six major cities. Now, it's been extended to all cities with more than one million, but it hasn't helped. "Making laws is not enough. T h e re i s a l aw against child labour but you see them everywhere. Under the Right to Education, every street child should be in school, but millions are getting wasted on footpaths. The only way to take them off streets is to put them in shelters and schools," says Goswami of i-India.
Considering their huge numbers, there are very few shelters for street children. Most are run by NGOs. The children have to fend for themselves and fight the demons surrounding them. Rahul has no desire to go to school; he just wants his daily dose of boot polish. Raju is happy sniffing glue. Pappu is learning the tricks of survival from Kalia the pocketmaar. Guddi hangs around with this bunch as they protect her from bigger pests. For all of them, the future just means the next meal.
The Most Vulnerable More than 40 million children in India are denied education and are vulnerable to abuse
CHILD LABOUR: They work in factories, workshops, mines and in the service sector. They are exploited financially and physically abused
STREET CHILDREN: Children living on and off the streets, such as shoeshine boys, ragpickers and beggars. They live on pavements, at bus stations and railway platforms. They are at the mercy of urban predators and the police
BONDED CHILDREN: They have to work in private houses or fields, either in exchange for a small salary or to repay family debts. Many are abused and tortured
SEX SLAVES: Thousands of young girls and boys serve the sexual appetites of men from various social and economic backgrounds. Factories, workshops, street corners, railway stations, bus stops and homes where children work are common places where this happens