This is a city walk unlike any other... street children of Delhi offer glimpses into their way of living and surviving.

Paromita Pain

Ideas of sightseeing in the historical capital of Delhi can be quite staid and usually include tours of lovely old buildings and gardens of long ago. But for a taste of tourism with a difference, go on a round of the city with the special guides of the Salaam Balak Trust. Instituted by filmmaker Meera Nair in 1989, the trust is doing pioneering work with street children. The young, eager, specially trained guides will not show you places where ancient kings or warriors are buried nor will they talk of halls with countless pillars. Instead you will find out where and how street children live and make a living, why children run away from homes, where they usually get off when they take trains to flee to Delhi and, importantly, how to identify runaway children. In short, get introduced to a wholly new culture that runs parallel to urban lives.

The trip starts from the New Delhi railway station, covers the various contact points of the Trust, the main centre and, to silence sceptics, isn't a slum jaunt at all.

Window to their world

Shekhar Saini and Javed Khan, trust members and designated guides, love their newfound roles. They share their stories with generous doses of candour and humour as they point out the various spots at the station where children get on with their lives. Saini, 21, ran away from home when he was 12. He hung around the Delhi station for a year and then went to the Trust. Today, he has just finished high school and wants to be an actor. He greets the waiting group with infectious enthusiasm and warm confidence, speaking clearly and fast in English while cutting quite a dashing figure in well-fitting jeans and cool accessories. He puts the walk in perspective "This isn't just about raising awareness about street kids but also showing how much they can achieve if given the right opportunities." Besides, these sessions also help the guides practise and improve their speaking skills.

Khan is shy but opens up gradually as he first cautions the group not to take pictures inside the station. "It isn't allowed," he says, as he runs to get platform tickets. Starting the walk, he says, "Every day almost 400 trains arrive at the Delhi railway station, and handle over 200,000 passengers. Usually in this crowd about 25 children are runaway kids."

Khan was eight when he decided to escape the daily drudgery of school, undone homework and the scolding that followed. Abandoned by his friends at the station because he hadn't any money, he lived on the streets for four years before he went to the Trust. Today he is a Delhi University student who wants to join the UNICEF and speaks knowledgably on `off street children' (the runaway and strays) and the `on street children' (those who have family and live on the street with them. They are the ones who usually beg). The smells, the noise and the crowds at the station can overwhelm a child, especially one that has run away from a poor countryside. "I used to sit and stare at light bulbs for ages," reminisces Khan. One day he fell asleep on the rail tracks and woke up to find a train speeding over him. The gap between the undercarriage and the ballast on the tracks saved him. Usually the kids sleep in spaces afforded by the over bridges and platform roofs.

The runaway sagas

Groupism is rampant and, as he says, "New runaway children are easily identifiable. So the minute I landed, an older child, who had been around for a while, came up to me and said that unless I joined his group I wouldn't be allowed to eat any food from the area." As he was speaking, he indicated a boy sitting on the platform stairs with a slightly lost air about him. "Look, a new runaway," he pointed out expertly. Khan's earliest memories of gang rivalries are certainly bloody. He was stabbed during a train food raid and woke up in hospital. Suddenly, stations aren't just places where trains stop and start, noisy, crowed and smelly. They are home to young people with unique commercial and cultural characterisations that define a way of life.

Showing the group around Platform No. 5, Khan explains the business dealings. Juice vendors and other shopkeepers usually cultivate a good relationship with such children. For, when the trains come in they run into them and collect leftover or thrown away food and fruit.

The highpoint are the arrivals of luxury trains, for they mean rich windfalls. "Besides, there are only two sources of food from the train and the garbage cans. Some are lucky and they get food from `nice places' (read luxury trains, generous hotels and wedding parties)," he tells us.

The vendors also protect the kids. During police raids they say they are employed with them and so save them from deportation. The practicality of it all is stunning. As Khan dryly observes, "They enable earning. If children have to survive they have to make connections and money."

Next on the `friends' list are the owners of medical shops and magazine stalls. While the former provides medical advice and attention in times of distress, the other is only too willing to buy up the discarded magazines that can be resold for half the price. Not surprisingly, it is with the law-keepers that they share a bitter relationship. "Whenever cops see them they beat them and on their part the children always devise newer and more ingenious methods to escape. The police think all of them are thieves. Only, sometimes such routes can be dangerous," says Khan, pointing to the gaps between the tracks, "They usually escape from there."

C/o platform

All the children living inside the station work and are usually rag pickers. Some are cleaners or work in small dhabas. They earn about Rs 70 a day, a part of which is saved and the rest spent on movies and food. The celluloid world holds a special attraction among these children. Come Saturday and it's time to watch a movie that has been freshly released the day before. "They have a shower and from the Sudder Market very near the station they buy clothes for Rs 15 or so and they are set. Some even watch all four shows since the air-conditioning is a great comfort," laughs Khan. "Some children actually go to Mumbai to catch the premier of Bollywood's latest sensational releases," he says.

And their travel doesn't require tickets but brains! As he explains, "I took a broom with me when I was going from Delhi to Mumbai. When I was asked for my ticket, I moved in and started cleaning. He (ticket examiner) thought I was an employee and left me alone." Saini once acted deaf and dumb when he was caught on one of his jaunts. The ticket collector thought him challenged and spared him.

Widely travelled, Khan has also been to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple. Religion in their world is the universal one of survival, so any festivals are just excuses for celebration. "One Diwali we bought candles and lit them under the bridge. Gambling, a big part of Diwali, was indulged in too and one friend lost everything... money, clothes and food.

He got angry and threw the cards near some electric wires. Another friend who wanted to keep playing went there to collect them and got electrocuted. He died."

He adds that some kids aren't aware of such dangers. "And how would they be? The strays from the countryside aren't aware of the dangers of electricity simply because most haven't any in their homes. Once I was electrocuted while on the streets. I was lucky and escaped."

The dangers are many and the living onerous but the independence can be addictive. As Khan says, "I am a Muslim. My family members were fundamentalists. When I came on the street, I was free." And that's why, he says, while many children may know about the organisation and what it does, not all of them be a part of it permanently. Five boys at present are being trained as guides and their work does more to change perspectives and educate us about the condition of the street child than any documentary or academic paper.

Contact for tour bookings: Phone: 9873130383 (Shekhar Saini)

Email: sbttour@yahoo.com

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 6, 2007)
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