As a whole generation of children grows up on the streets of Mumbai, it’s time to ask why we allow that to happen.
Text and Photos by Shreya Sachan
“Main toh Superman, Salman ka fan . . .” sings ten-year-old Raghuveer, or aspiring ‘Krrish’, as he begins his story about his home – a slice of pavement near St. Andrews’ Church in Bandra West. When he grows up he wants “to save people and live in a house like the one Salman Khan lives in.” Rahul, an 11-year old who lives on the famous Bandstand, is proud of sharing his name with the screen-name of Shahrukh Khan but at the same time he doesn’t want to associate with it when he grows up and becomes a “big man”. He wants to be an engineer and make Lamborghinis.
These are just two of the many dreams that the children on the streets of Mumbai have for their future. The city of dreams, studded with reel if not real stars, leads them to believe that anything is possible. But will their dream ever find fruition?
As per a census conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2013, there are 37,059 children on the street in Mumbai. Professor Mohua Nigudkar of the Centre for Equity and Justice for Children and Families at TISS explains that the terminologies to refer to these children have now changed. While earlier ‘street children’ was an acceptable term, now in order to avoid ‘labelling’, these children are called ‘street connected children’ or ‘children living on the street’.
With no proper facilities for sanitation or housing, deprived of their basic rights of protection, development and participation, these children are trying to make do with whatever little they have. A little further down the road from the church, near the traffic light at Lucky restaurant lives Dilip, father of two children. His son, twelve-year-old Aakash wants to study and get a decent job when he grows up. Unable to attend school, the only education he gets is when he goes back to his village once in a year. But he manages to make time for self-study at night while doing odd jobs during the day. “Ye sab sapne, sapne hi rehjayenge (All these dreams for a decent job will remain a dream only),” Dilip says with a sad smile.
They are a group of ten to fifteen people which includes about eight children under the age of 15. They live together as a family. Although the police understand their problem, the neighbourhood is apprehensive of them. However, they once helped the police track down a robber who broke into the building they get their water from. They manage to scrape together one meal for the day and live on whatever they can scavenge for the rest of the day. The children who go to school attend the Pali Chimbai Municipal School from 12 in the afternoon till 6 in the evening.
Raghuveer’s mother, who sells gajras on the streets, tells me that they have lived next to St. Andrew’s Church for as long as she can remember. “We stay there until 1 o’clock in the night and after that when the food outlet, Zaffran closes down, we go and sleep on its steps,” she says. They arrange for water from the church and for bathing they go to the Bandstand.
Rahul lives with his crippled grandmother because his parents abandoned him and his elder brother, Sagar, and left for the village. He has no idea where they went. “I am unable to get any job, because all vendors and shopkeepers send me away since child labour is illegal,” he says. He is now forced to beg for money from the people who visit Bandstand. They are also harassed by local policemen and have faced beatings from some regular joggers.
“When children don’t want to study or be institutionalized we conclude that they are disinterested. But actually we don’t show them a better alternative.”
But in this rough life, Bollywood keeps their spirit alive and star-studded Bandra aids in it. Rahul points me to the celebrities’ houses and tells me very proudly that he has seen all these stars in real life. He goes to the chawls every morning to watch movies and to listen to songs.
Raghuveer cannot get enough of singing Salman’s super hit songs out loud. His mother tells me that he doesn’t miss a single Salman Khan movie. “He once saw him on a bike and has dreamt of driving that bike in the same way ever since,” she laughs as Raghuveer breaks into another Salman Khan song. Apart from wanting to be Krrish to save people, Raghuveer also calls himself chhota don because no one can catch him or defeat him.
Things are rather solemn in Marine Drive. Seven-year-old, Ravi, youngest of his five siblings comes up to me and asks for alms. I ask him what he needs it for. “A vadapao,” he says. I offer him some snacks. He looks at them for a long while but takes a bite of them eventually. When asked where he lives, he says Churchgate but ask him where exactly in Churchgate and he has no answer. Meera, his 12-year-old sister, comes along and tells me that they live on the street. She recounts the time when a policeman slapped her so hard that she fell down, just because she was loitering around Victoria Terminus. Many children interviewed recounted stories of everyday harassment on the streets.
“We all have an image of children and if they appear ‘not so vulnerable’ and assume adult like roles, we assume that they are bound to be a part of anti-social activities. What we don’t realise is that it could just be pure survival instinct,” explains Nigudkar. She adds, “When children don’t want to study or be institutionalized we conclude that they are disinterested. But actually we don’t show them a better alternative.”
Government institutions are often not an adequate answer for these children. Shamili Syed, a counselling psychology student at TISS, mentions the deplorable conditions of the Government Observational Home at Dongri in Mumbai where she worked as a counsellor for a year. The home takes in runaway children, children who were forced into child labour and children in conflict with law. She recounts the case of a 12-year-old girl, a runaway from Kolkata, who had been raped 12 times. Her mother was a sex worker and she told Syed how her mother had to work in her brother and her presence.
“There were two sections in the observational home,” describes Syed, “a boys’ ward and a girls’ ward. The children were divided into groups and were made to do chores not meant for them.” She further throws light on how the toilets, especially in the boys’ ward, were never cleaned. There are no adequate medical facilities, no proper cooking conditions neither do appointed teachers give time to their education and learning. “Had the facility not been in such a bad condition, the counsellors could have made a difference,” says Syed.
Dilip asks me if I would be able to get a job for his little child, if I would be able to get him admitted to a good school and hostel where there would be accommodation and food, through this article. How satisfying it would be, if someone does notice the plight and dreams of these people and does something to give them a better future where they can realise these dreams.
1098 is a toll-free helpline for children all across India. Pioneered in Mumbai by Childline Foundation India in 1996, it developed with the support of Government funding. Sudhish from Childline Foundation India It’s a 24 hour helpline that caters to the needs and problems of all children, not just the homeless. According to Sudhish of Childline Foundation India, the grievances of these children range from child marriage, sexual abuse, drug addiction to cases of missing children and runaway children. The Foundation aims at providing children with help at the earliest. It is perhaps the most significant public-private partnership in the development sector. The message is simple: tell children to dial 1098 whenever they need help.