Bindiya, 13, along with four other children, leaves her home in slum cluster in Narela at 7 am sharp every day. They return home by around 5 pm. Their routine may be mistaken for school timings. But these children head to Connaught Place to sell pens to make a living.
They form a group and “stick together” so that they do not get lost. Their siblings disperse in other parts of the city, mostly the Delhi Zoo, to sell folded fans, along with the pens.
The youngest child in the group is four-year-old Sanjay. Bindiya swiftly names the other children: Sonia, 10 who is always accompanied by her sister Khusboo, 8, and Kuldeep, 9.
Their tales are almost similar: their parents either sell water in Narela or work in factories where they pack noodles. The children themselves earn between Rs 80-Rs 100 together every day by selling pens.
Only one among them, Kuldeep, has ever been to school.
“I left it and started coming here instead to earn money,” he says. The others say they have never thought about going to school. Their only bit of learning happens on Sundays when two youths come to teach them outside gate No. 2 of the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station.
The children were not able to confirm whether the teachers are from an NGO or any other institute.
At another corner of the busy Connaught Place market, five-year-old Alam asks for alms outside the Metro station. He comes from Noida every morning and goes back to his grandmother at around 7 pm.
Alam is wearing a dirty red t-shirt, his nose is bubbling with mucous and the skin on his legs is dry and flaking. Till 2.30 pm, he has managed to collect Rs 35.
He says he was born in Delhi but soon after that his parents “ran away” to Patna and left him with his grandmother, who works as a domestic help.
“I give my money to her or else she beats me,” he says.
Experts say that the only way to bring these children into the mainstream is taking their parents into confidence as they are the ones who send these kids to earn.
“These children know no other way of life. They have been brought up by their parents in a way that they know they have to start working at an early age. They remain on the streets throughout the day and do not fear even travelling to far off places for money,” says Pramod Kumar Singh, who works with the NGO Salaam Baalak Trust.
The NGO has been working towards rehabilitation of street children since 1988, providing full-time and short stay facilities to children in need of care and protection. It has a total of 28 centres (22 contact points and six shelter homes).
The NGO also has various centres dedicated to education of children who live in shelter homes run by the Delhi government.
According to a study done by the NGO Save the Children in 2010, the national capital is home to over 50,000 street children – constituting 0.4 per cent of Delhi’s population and one per cent of the total number of children here.
There are two kinds of street children, Pramod says. One kind is like Alam who have a home to go to but beg for a living or those born to homeless parents, and the second category are those who have run away from home and made their way to Delhi. These children spend their days at locations such as New Delhi railway station and Old Delhi and get involved in activities like drugs, theft and prostitution.
“There are various gangs who look for these children. We have to reach out to them before they do. Once they come in contact with these gangs, it is difficult to convince them for their rehabilitation,” says P N Mishra, a member of the NGO’s executive council.
Even if they live on their own, it takes a lot to convince them and bring them into the mainstream, sometimes even months.
“These children are mostly in the age group of 10-15 years. They have tasted freedom and are mostly into alcohol. They have seen what exposure to the world is. We have to gain their confidence,” says Pramod, who is the coordinator for rescuing children from the vicinity of New Delhi railway station.
Sometimes, even if the child agrees to come into the shelter home, he goes back into his old world. The NGO has seen cases where they have admitted children in government schools but they have dropped out and gone back to begging or to one of the gangs.
“Some children are not convinced that what is being done is for their benefit,” he says.
Last year, the NGO rescued more than 8,000 children, out of which 2,200 were restored to their families, mostly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Pramod, however, says, there is a need to improve the infrastructural facilities for these children in the capital.
“We are already exceeding the capacity at our centres. There are so many such children coming to Delhi by train every day. The issue of street children should be on the priority list of the government,” he says.
Another issue is getting these children used to living without “pocket money”, which is their “weakness”.
“When we made them leave begging and got them admitted into government schools, what we noticed was they used to ask for alms while coming back from school in their school uniforms,” says Samar, who teaches at a centre run by the NGO at a government-run shelter home near Jama Masjid.
Almost every child in the shelter home was into begging till last year when this centre was set up.
“Since they had their own money, they were into the habit of eating every one or two hours from a dhaba nearby. Initially they didn’t like the healthy food we gave them,” says Samar.
The children are given basic education from morning till 4 pm daily. They rest, eat their lunch, and play, all in this one room. Once they have passed a certain level, they are admitted into nearby government schools.
Last year, 17 children from this centre were enrolled into schools. One of them is eight-year-old Chandni, who says she did not like begging but was forced into it by her mother.
Now she cheerfully claims that she knows counting and can recite tables and alphabets. She has a file, like every child in the centre, which has pages of the lessons she has learnt so far, like forming sentences, etc.
“We had to be strict with them because these kids have a lot of exposure. Initially they didn’t take us seriously and even their parents used to interrupt the classes anytime of the day, and take the children with them for begging,”
Things are visibly different now. Sitting on their mats, the children greet anyone new who enters the room, and tell them what they want to become when they grow up. Many here say they want to become policemen or doctors.
Chandni points towards Samar and says she wants to become a teacher like her.