So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.
Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]
Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]
Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]
Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]
Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]
Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.
The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.
One of winter’s most heart-wrenching sights is to see under clad children begging on the streets, shivering and asking for money. The reactions of us folks sitting inside the vehicles at traffic lights is a tad more pathetic though. Most studiously ignore, others actively chase away and those whose hearts melt, reach out for a few coins and move on when the light turns green.
A few years ago, on a particularly cold, foggy night, I was driving to a friends place for dinner. Near the Ber Sarai traffic light near JNU there were a few kids doing their begging routine, when I saw a lady pull down her window and talk to them! She sounded quite stern, asking the kids where their parents were!
My first reaction was to laugh out loud. What kind of question is that to begging kids? But soon enough, I shut up and watched intently, for the lady proceeded to pile the kids up in her car and drive away. Consumed with curiosity, I followed….underneath the nearby flyover, we found the street-dwellers family (group may be more appropriate). The lady, who I realized was familiar with these people yelled at the parents of the kids, asking them to give them sweaters! Turns out her NGO works with these kids and they had been given woollies a few days ago. The parents had taken the woollies off and sent the kids begging bare-chested to spark pity and hopefully get some alms out of the rich people in the cars!
I was aghast, first at the cruelty that these parents were inflicting on their own kids, but more at the extreme poverty that drove people to this. Recently, there was a news item that described an attempt the Delhi government has made to rehabilitate beggars into beggar homes (three of these exist at Seemapuri, Jail Road and Lampur). As per the HT article, about 600 beggars currently live in these homes, where they get food and are taught some skills as well. Apparently, those who enrolled got a small stipend per day. The government had increased this daily stipend to Rs 30 this year, but beggars are demanding Rs 80 per day saying its more lucrative for them to beg rather than accept such terms. Beggars claim that Rs 30 isn’t sufficient for them to support themselves anyway to fulfill their needs beyond food and shelter.
The positive strain here is that the authorities are still trying to find a solution to rehabilitate beggars (as opposed to the crazy idea to throw them out before the Commonwealth Games in 2010, only to let them back in post-Games!), but to me the problem appears more complex that offering them shelter and food. What is the guarantee that the skills imparted to them will convert into jobs? Is there some sort of employment guarantee? What other measures can we take to ensure better rehabilitation so that these people don’t go back to begging, which has become a way of life for them? Also, the solutions would need to cater to the over 60,000 beggars in Delhi (number estimated by Action Aid in 2004, which means there are lot more today), which is a huge challenge.
Coming back to my little story. The incident changed my perspective forever. Now I try and carry biscuits or bananas when I am going to areas frequented by beggars and simply distribute food, hoping to in some way alleviate their suffering (Dear reader, do share stuff you do to give me some ideas on how else to help). Money, I know, will find its way into the parents’ pockets and expenditure may not benefit the children directly. Though I don’t think ALL street dwellers are drug junkies or alcoholics, I know its a real problem and why not just give the children something they can use immediately? I also roll down the window and talk to them like they are normal people, smile at the babies and ask about their age, gender, etc. It doesn’t hurt to be human, does it? Yesterday, on Lodi Road, I was rewarded with a huge toothless smile as the little one chewed away on a Monaco biscuit, holding the rest of the packet firmly in her grip!