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Shivani, 10, and her cousins beg in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market. Officially they don't exist.
In a dingy basement in New Delhi, a group of children take turns to explain their problems and listen to the advice of their peers. A teenager in the corner takes notes. It’s immediately clear that these aren’t regular schoolkids.
The first boy, in an oversize shirt and ragged trousers, explains how the recent monsoon downpour flooded his slum, one man died, and people are getting sick; the next boy describes how government operatives have torn down his family’s unauthorised shack. One girl reports on some young factory workers who are having trouble getting their (illegal) wages from their boss, another describes how two children have been severely beaten by police officers in a local market. These things don’t normally happen to children in India, unless you’re a street child.
India has the largest population of street children in the world. There are at least 11 million of these kids, living or working on the streets, out of education, and not recognised officially in any way. Most charities think the figure is probably closer to 20 million.
UNICEF estimate that only 40% of Indian babies are registered at birth, which means that every year, 10 million children are born into a legal no-man’s land – on paper, they don’t exist.
In the big cities, that can be a death sentence. These kids aren’t counted on family food ration books, their parents can’t access healthcare for them, and although all Indian children are entitled to free education up to the age of 14, many schools demand proof of age and residence to secure admission. Street children who don’t know how old they are and live in illegal slums, shacks or under flyovers, invariably miss out.
The editor and chief reporter of Children's Voice newspaper – the only paper written for and by Street Children in India
Vulnerable to traffickers and pimps looking for fresh meat, street kids are easy prey. It’s common knowledge on the street that if you’re co-opted into a begging gang, they might put out an eye or amputate a foot in order to make you more valuable. Runaways, abandoned kids and orphans are lured in with the promise of food, and somewhere to sleep. They’re plied with weed and booze, or taught to sniff whitener – tippex – from a handkerchief. They become putty in bad hands.
But the majority of children you see roaming India’s streets have at least some family. Money that should support education and relieve poverty doesn’t reach them, lost in the millefeuille of Indian bureaucracy, or siphoned off by unscrupulous ‘agents’ who take advantage of illiterate parents who can’t fathom the system. And many parents prioritise immediate earnings over education. So the children are out of school, begging, scavenging or in shady workplaces.
Child labour isn’t illegal in India, but for children under 14 it should, in principle, be strictly controlled. It’s not. Often children are the main breadwinners for large families, working to support parents’ addictions, or trying to earn their share so that there’s some food in the pot each evening.
The Indian Government proposed a bill totally banning child labour last year, but it’s stalled and wasn’t debated in this parliamentary session. The children I spoke to on the street believe that if child labour were to be banned, and the ban implemented, they would starve. It’s all well and good when some bureaucrat says they should be in school, and their families helped, but these kids are pragmatic and world-wise, and they don’t believe it would ever happen the way it should.
Uneducated children inevitably become illiterate, innumerate adults and the depressing cycle rolls on. And in India, many believe that it’s karma – destiny – that these kids are at the bottom of the pile. Many of the kids believe it too.
Street children aren’t vote winners, and the problems that push these kids on to the streets, into hazardous work, crime, or into the grasp of traffickers and abusers, are messy and difficult to solve.
But there are some children hungry for change. They are empowered enough to fight back. Backed by the Indian charity CHETNA, a federation of street and working children across four states in north India write and edit their own broadsheet newspaper.
Out every three months, Children’s Voice, Balaknama, is written in Hindi, and is as serious as newspapers come. Full of case studies and campaigning articles about police brutality, child marriage and illegal child labour, it’s a tough read.
Knowing that the oldest members of staff are just 18, the youngest, 8, is sobering. Vijay Kumar, chief reporter of Children’s Voice, knows the situation better than most journalists – he lives in a windowless slum room with five family members, and still considers himself a street child.
The editor of the paper, 18-year old Shanno, learned to read under a tree in an open-air charity class. She now dreams of being a children’s lawyer, if only she and her widowed mother could find the fees for the course.
Some of the Children’s Voice reporters can’t read and write themselves yet – they dictate their stories to their friends. Their first official recognition as ‘proper’ people is when they see their byline. It’s a powerful experience.
Vijay feels driven to tell the stories that would otherwise not be heard, and to help more kids find their voices. “Street children are like ghosts…no-one notices and no-one cares. Our newspaper, Balaknama, means Children’s Voice…that’s what it gives us. People need to listen.”
1.3 billion people live in India, and 60% are under 25 – when these young people do find a way to speak out about their own futures, it’s a powerful force for change. Shanno and Vijay are at the head of a numerous and resilient army.
Unreported World: Slumkid Reporters is on Channel 4 this Friday 1st November at 7.30pm.
It will be available to view globally alongside additional content athttp://www.channel4.com/programmes/unreported-world/
Consortium for Street Children www.streetchildren.org.uk
CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action), the charity that backs the Children’s Voice newspaper www.chetna-india.org
To support CHETNA’s work, you can donate through their UK charity partner, Hope for Children: www.hope-for-children.org/projects/realising-rights/
The recent UN report on the world’s street children is available: Children on the Street