STREET KIDS IN DELHI
By Carol L. Bowman
The outdoor market in the slum neighborhood of Gautam Nagar, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India seemed temporary and chaotic. The faces of the merchants who stood behind kiosks slapped together with odd pieces of wood, plastic and metal, showed the anxious strain of vendors needing to make a sale. Women wearing faded saris and carrying frayed shopping bags moved along the stalls, perhaps searching for produce worthy of their precious few rupees. Sitting Yoga style on overturned plastic buckets, old men donning turbans and threadbare kurtas seemed to spend their day watching life slip away.
We cut across the busy street, keeping Anwar, our Overseas Adventure Travel guide, within eyesight. Losing the outline of his tall frame for even a second made my feet and pulse move faster. Dust billowed as young desperados restless from their idleness, zigzagged through the disorder on their rusty scooters and motorbikes. The elders followed our movements with their curious eyes, as if to question what purpose these pale Westerners had in this shantytown. I agreed. What were we doing dodging rickshaws and jumping out of the path of errant motorcycles in this place where the likes of us were as rare as rain in April?
Anwar turned onto a less traveled but scarier street that paralleled the train tracks to our right and like disciples, we followed without hesitation. This was no place to get distracted and swept up by the adventure. He stopped at a narrow storefront and bought every individually wrapped cracker and cookie package on the racks. The shopkeeper beamed at his fortune that one sale had probably accrued more money for him than he might make in a week. Loaded down with these goodies for our intended hosts, we proceeded toward our destination around the corner onto an even bleaker alley. Its crumbling buildings with faded facades shouted p-o-v-e-r-t-y. Garbage tumbled down the middle of the street, deserted except for a rat rummaging for a tidbit. This dank, grey slum seemed lifeless and without hope. Anwar stopped in front of a narrow door that displayed a sign, Badte Kadam. As we entered, everything changed.
Youthful laughter filled the space inside. Yellow walls displayed bright hand-crafted murals, including a flower garden of tulips painted along the bottom of the room’s perimeter. Teenagers sitting on carpets that covered the floor were engaged in lively conversation and young children appeared to be receiving informal instructions in a side room. Anwar distributed the snacks. Smiles of delight beamed back at this small offering. We had arrived at the Delhi Community Center of the Federation of Street and Working Children.
Save the Children reports that India has the largest population of street kids in the world, with 51,000 in Delhi alone. Girls number 20%, most of whom have suffered physical and sexual abuse. Child trafficking for labor exploitation allows for 5% of Delhi’s total workforce to be children under the age of 18. Torture, drug abuse, harassment by thugs, police brutality and disappearance of some kids didn’t seem to cause any public uproar. The non-governmental organization CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action) under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stepped in and developed hubs throughout the country to provide a safe haven from the injustice these kids suffer daily. Drug rehabilitation, health clinics, minimal education and hot meals provide a respite for kids who live on the street.
These victims of abuse decided to take charge of their plight. Despite being uneducated, without identity or empowerment they started a newspaper and called it Balaknama, The Voice of the Children. In its 15th year of publication, the media has finally taken notice of this monthly tabloid that reports on the struggles of slum kids in Delhi. CNN and the BBC recently did TV clips with photo shoots. The day we came, 17-year old editor, Shambhu, 16-year old lead reporter, Joyti, and a large group of young staff gathered to meet us, the first group of Western travelers to hear their story face to face.
Sanno, advisor for the newspaper and former editor who relinquished her role when she turned 18, made her opening remarks in Hindi. Anwar translated. “Every child who grows up on the street has his or her own story of pain, sorrow, horrific incidents and joy, she said. “These stories are shared among other street kids without much hesitation.” Balaknama allows for their accounts to become part of the public record through the power of the pen.
Recently expanded to 16 pages per edition, the newspaper circulates 5,000 copies in Hindi, and since 2015, thanks to volunteers 3,000 copies are printed in English. CHETNA pays for the printing, but layout, editorial discretion of selected stories, typing and copy editing remains the complete responsibility of the teenagers. The newspaper has a staff of 14 writers and 70 verbal reporters, some as young as 10. Known as baatooni, these illiterate news gatherers, deprived of any schooling, report their stories orally to the main writers. Shambhu handles the one official camera. Newspapers, distributed free of charge to police stations, community organizations and shopkeepers, may be purchased by the public for two rupees.
Joyti, who never stepped foot in a regular classroom, learned to read and write at the Center. She sleeps in a homeless shelter at night. She explained that they must be very careful not to reveal sources of atrocities in the newspaper as harm could come to the children reporting them. Both Joyti and Shambhu passionately described their most important public disclosure. Police used to order the street kids to dispose of body parts left on the train tracks following deadly accidents or successful suicides. Being forced to carry out this horrific task and worse, without pay caused much trauma for targeted street kids. Once this practice had been revealed in their newspaper, top authorities demanded this police brutality to cease. No fake news from these young journalists, just the dirty truth.
Before leaving, we offered monetary contributions to a surprised but humble staff. I looked at these proud, determined street kids and started to comprehend the miracles happening here on a daily basis and the work that could change their lives forever. I realized that our trek through the slum neighborhood had been worth it for us and for them.
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