'Street child,' used by the Commission on Human Rights in 1994, describes "any girl or boy for whom the street has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults." Street children were categorized as either children on the street, who worked on the street and went home to their families at night; children of the street, who lived on the street, were functionally without family support but maintained family links; or abandoned children who lived completely on their own.*
I was met with a vacuous look followed by an impish smile that is enough to make you believe that innocence still remains in a child that grew up too quickly skipping a childhood that was rightfully his. He murmurs, "I don't have ambitions. I just want to end up in prison. Nobody to disturb and I'll be at peace!" His life on the streets of Bangalore has taken a toll on his dreams. He has none. We met at an open shelter for children in Bangalore. His looked at me with skeptical eyes. Perhaps he was wondering whether I was from the Child Welfare Committee. Life at the shelter is good, he watches TV and relaxes, and for a while he feels like he can lower his guard and not work at being an adult. Mohan (name changed) is an example of the many street children you may bump into at any of our burgeoning metropolitan cities. Street children are extremely vulnerable because they are roofless and often socially, emotionally and economically deprived. They remain largely alienated from society and more often than not, they are deprived of their basic rights that includes survival, protection, development, proper nutrition, education and participation.
Even as yet another International Day for Street Children (April 12th) passed unmarked by any major announcement from the government, only the alarming data remains, reminding us of the fact that much needs to be done for children of the street.
Estimates state that that one in every four street children in the metropolitan cities of India is a victim of some form of substance abuse and over half of such children live in difficult and potentially dangerous conditions. It does not help that more often than not these children end up picking rags or beg for a living. Substance abuse by street children is fairly common, and around 40-70% of street children across Indian cities are victims of the same. **
Each child has a unique story, each story equally indicative of the push or pull factor of a child being on the street. How we view children of the street is tantamount to how we treat them. Children of the street more often than not end up being deprived of their rights. What's worse is that we often tend to look at them with eyes that label them as delinquents and do not see them as the victims they actually and truly are.
Although the data from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) has statistics on crimes against children, it should be noted that generally not many crimes committed against street children is reported. Police apathy towards street children is one of the reasons why cases are not recorded.
The answer to the question of why they are on the street is not just one but many. Some are there because they did not want to go back to that teacher who punished the child for not wearing a uniform; another could be there because she wanted to see the big city for herself, yet another because he simply wanted to be free. But they often land up in situations too complicated for their delicate and innocent minds to comprehend. But life teaches them lessons, quickly and mercilessly. They toughen up and survive. Our street children need compassionate systems that take into account the fact that they are children.
In 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child agreed to develop a General Comment on the Children in street Situations, (a process that will take shape in the next two years) but which can bring the arduous challenges that street children face everyday out in the open and actually promote pragmatic solutions towards helping street children. It will also push towards the creation of a framework for better Government accountability towards ensuring street children their rights as children. While in the realm of policies, India does have the National Policy for Children 2013, the Right to free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2006 - and it does include a few issues that concern street children but most of them do not effectively address all issues and needs of street children. *** An analysis done by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability on the Union budget of 2015-2016 reveals that child protection continues to be of low priority and it is distressing to note that budgetary allocations for child protection programs and schemes do not exceed 0.04% of the Union budget! In fact the total allocation towards child protection schemes is around Rs 726.9 crore which is not enough to ensure adequate infrastructure and human resources to implement ICPS (Integrated Child Protection Scheme) universally in all districts.
While the Integrated Child Protection Scheme refers to the concept of Open Shelters (community-based safe spaces where children can play, study or engage in creative activities in a safe environment), but sadly there just aren't enough of such shelters in the cities. Many agree that a manifold intervention strategy at many levels would be required after correctly assessing all aspects - be it sociological, geographical or anthropological. The fact remains that the role of the government assumes even more importance and the urgency to act on this cannot be stressed enough. Its role towards rehabilitation of street families, making provisions for social security for children so that children do not have to work to sustain themselves and look at various ways in which they can guarantee the children of the street what they need the most a happy, healthy childhood, is of utmost importance. At a more personal level, each one of us need to understand and be compassionate towards street children. They didn't choose to be there. They definitely never wanted to be children of the street!
*Protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living on the street -A report by United Nations Children's Fund Consortium for Street Children
**Assessment of pattern, profile and correlates of substance use among children in India-report by NCPCR, 2013
*** CBGA's Analysis of the Union Budget http://www.cbgaindia.org/files/updates_on_ub15/Analysis%20of%20Union%20Budget%202015-16.pdf