Deadened eyes, knowing smile
Pleading hands and calculated guile.
This girl is no child, she knows adult games
But we never look at her face, so we know no names.
And there not too far away, stands one so loved, so adored
A cherished child this one, but he is easily bored.
Smart-phone, Facebook, Xbox and Wii
Things and games are what matter to him, not you or me.
Two children, two very different lives
One gets everything he wants; the other tries and strives.
One has no childhood, she is old before her time
And the other? Well, he could be your son or mine.
She stood right at the entrance of the fast food outlet. We couldn't have ignored her even if we wanted to. Her friend, equally skinny, as raggedly dressed, was hanging around the tables set outside. That way, the duo could target everyone walking in.
She thrust a packet of cheap, garish stickers at me—a heap of Doraemon, Power Rangers, Ben10, Barbie, Chhota Bheem—knowing my little boy would want to see and then, pester me to buy it for him.
"No," I said firmly. I did not want to buy any more flashy stickers, even if these cost only ₹10 each. The girl then mimed the universal code for hungry—rubbing her tummy, eyes all pleading, hand to mouth.
I am frequently subject to such ambushes and invariably, I either end up buying whatever the child is selling or end up getting him or her something to eat. Guilt drives me, I suppose. And I am sure it has happened to most of us. Because there are so many children living on our streets. Because they have the street smarts to know that crowding around fast food outlets, darshinis and supermarkets is a sure-fire way of earning a few bucks, and maybe a free meal or two.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every 8 minutes a child goes missing in India. Most of these children are never found or restored to their families.
Inside, a group of 12-and13-year-olds were just finishing up their meal. Someone's birthday treat, I think. The boys were almost in uniform—smart jeans, neatly pressed full sleeve shirts or t-shirts, Nike or Adidas sneakers, and all of them with smart phones in hand.
Some also had their iPads on the table.
There are two types of childhoods being played out in urban India. On one side, are the utterly lavished and pampered children who grow up wanting for nothing. They wear designer clothes and accessories, own high-end gadgets before they turn 13, some have their own social media profiles (did someone say age-restriction?) and some have personal tutors coming home to help them improve their grades. What's more, some of these children also have their own television set and refrigerator in their room. Naturally, these children often go to exclusive or super-expensive schools that charge annual fees of ₹5-10 lakh (exclusive of transport and food). Such schools, in turn, lavish their wards with holidays abroad. Trips to Singapore are passé, by the way. Recently, a school in Bangalore took Class 10 students to the US for a weeks-long holiday. Parents paid up to ₹3.5 lakh per child and they also paid for a teacher to accompany the students for the trip.
By the time I finished ordering a kids' meal for my son, a wrap for me, and (driven by my conscience), two extra wraps for the girls outside, the big group of boys was ready to leave. They didn't bother clearing their trays (as is the norm in self-service joints, but heck, what are the staff meant for, anyway?).
The group stood outside, slapping shoulders and shouting "See ya, bro" to each other. The two girls tried desperately to get the boys' attention, but the latter, seemingly oblivious, walked right past them. Turns out the boys were in such a hurry to leave that one of them left behind his "tab" on the dirty table. There it lay gleaming amidst a mound of used tissues, assorted wrappers and spilled soft drinks.
I watched as a staffer gingerly picked it up and left it for safekeeping behind the counter.
By that time, I had received our own order, and as my son eagerly unwrapped his kids' meal (plus free toy), I peered out, hoping to spot the girls. I wanted to hand over the extra wraps I had bought.
The staff behind the counter of the fast food place seemed unfazed—both by the street children and at the mess the boys had left behind.
"Do those girls come here often?" I asked the polite girl who served me.
"Ma'am, they come here twice a week, or when they have stickers to sell," she said.
On the other side of this urban divide, are the invisible children of our cities, who spend their childhoods trying to beg, borrow, steal or barter goods for food and god knows what else. Some begin their street-existence as a "missing" child. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every 8 minutes a child goes missing in India. Most of these children are never found or restored to their families. So how many such invisible children exist? Estimates vary from one crore to four crore street children. Truth is, no one knows exactly. Often, government figures are ludicrous underestimates. For instance, Chetna, an NGO working for street and working children in Delhi, reckoned five years ago that "...there are at least five lakh street children in the National Capital, but in government records, less than 50,000 exist."
The numbers are probably higher now.
A 2013 survey by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work) and Action Aid India estimated there were some 37,059 children living on the streets of Mumbai. Here, the Bengaluru Oniyavara Seva Coota (BOSCO) helps in rescuing and rehabilitating over 7,000 boys and girls a year, but "...the actual number of children reaching the streets would be many more," a BOSCO spokesperson was recently quoted as saying.
As I was wondering what to do, next, a flustered boy rushed in.
"Did I leave my tab here?" he asked the girl at the counter. He sounded more than a little panicked.
The polite staffer smiled and handed over the device.
"Thanks, thanks," the relieved boy said, and left, as quickly as he had come in.
I glanced outside again to see if I could spot the girls. They had vanished. It seemed they had disappeared into the streets where they lived.
Those working in the field of child rescue told me that the latest trend in child abuse is to live-stream child rapes from here to paedophiles in other countriesAnita Nair, author
The harsh truth is, that these street and working children are also often trafficked, abused, sodomized, raped or worse, murdered. A 2011 Times of India article quotes an activist: "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?"
Writer Anita Nair's second crime novel Chain of Custody featuring Inspector Borei Gowda is about Bangalore's child trafficking racket. While researching the story, she discovered just how horrific the lives of the "invisible" children can be. "Those working in the field of child rescue told me that the latest trend in child abuse is to live-stream child rapes from here to paedophiles in other countries," Nair told me last year. Her research left Nair so shaken that she told me she was sickened to her soul at the time.
So there I was thinking about the boy who had carelessly left his tab behind.
There I was, watching my own child eat his kids' meal, exclaiming over his shiny new toy. Sitting there, I thought about the two girls who had tried to get me to buy something.
Had they eaten that day?
I sat there looking at the two extra wraps, feeling guiltier than ever.
I wished I had bought those stickers after all.
I wished I had done something, instead of...nothing.