A room of our own & new clothes: Homeless children’s new year wish

Nothing new about the upcoming year for street children

Society

January 1, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

A room of our own & new clothes: Homeless children’s new year wish

Despite the torrid conditions and little change in their situation for years, the children remain optimistic about the future (MIG Photos/Richa Nigam)

Even though there is lack of data on how many children live on roads in India, amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic and bone-chilling winter, many of the children remain full of hope for the upcoming year.

With his feet bare and clothes tattered, an 11-year-old Salman Khan serves tea to the passers-by at the inner circle of Connaught place, located in the heart of New Delhi, the national capital. He says he came to Delhi from Bihar a year ago to find work. His parents, labourers in a village there, were not able to make ends meet for his family of seven, he says. Having dropped out of school at the age of six, he now works at the tea stall and lives on the street.

“I want to eat lots of ice cream and want two new pair of clothes this year, just like she is wearing,” says 8-year-old Heera Joshi, pointing to a girl in pink frock, crossing the road. Joshi is a resident of Aurangabad in Uttar Pradesh, about 100 km due east of Delhi. “My parents work as domestic help and we have come to Delhi recently. They say they will buy me new clothes if they find a job here,” she adds. She moved to Delhi only two weeks ago with her parents who lost their jobs during the lockdown and are still looking for regular work.

Khan and Joshi, along with four other children their age, are huddled under a torn blanket that they share in the chilly winter night on December 31, in the central park for watching Dabangg 3, a Hindi movie being screened for them by an NGO as a part of the new year eve celebration.

“I don’t particularly like Salman Khan despite him being my name twin, but this is what they are showing, so I will make do. I don’t really get to watch movies on the big screen very often,” says Khan.

Khan and Joshi are only two of the over 90,000 children that were identified to be in ‘street situation’ as part of a survey conducted by the Delhi Commission for Protection for Child Rights (DCPCR) across Delhi in 2019.

This survey was mainly done at hotspots in the city where homeless children are found in higher numbers such as traffic signals, dump yards, railway stations and near religious institutions, among others.

“As a majority of children do not have any identity proof, registered places of birth or fixed addresses, they are hence not in the government’s net of social schemes,” DCPCR chairperson Ramesh Negi tells Media India Group.

Around 13,000 homeless people stay in government shelters in Delhi while approximately 6,000-7,000 people still sleep on the streets. New Year means little to them. Celebrations and aspirations for the occasion are not homeless children’s primary concerns. Many of them dread the celebratory nights as they say that drunk people on road, loud music and crowds make it difficult for them to sleep.

“For us, it is always about the new day, not the New Year,” says Khan with a smile, “during the night time when people come out of their houses and celebrate, especially during festivals, it becomes really difficult for me and others like me who spend their night by the roadside. Some people keep playing loud music, some keep driving their vehicles throughout the night at a very high speed and I get scared that they might run over me,” he says.

For the last few days, the north-western part of India has been in the grip of a severe cold wave. New years’ eve was one of the coldest day of the season in the capital with the mercury dipping to 3°C. Almost all the children who sleep on the roads complain of bitter cold as they barely have anything to cover themselves with.

But despite that, some of them say they have big hopes for 2021 – a room of their own, new clothes and even school education.

A room of one’s own

“I don’t like living in shelter homes. The place stinks and there are people who abuse others. My father often gets into fights and gets abused by others. They push us out of the shelter home and ask us to go back to our state,” explains Joshi.

“My parents say they will get a job really soon. They also say that 2021 will be better and I will even have a room of my own,” says Joshi.

While Khan smiles and listens to Joshi carefully, his eyes sparkle with hope and he says “I have few wishes from the New Year too. I have saved a few hundred rupees and I think I’ll be able to buy a few books with that money. The owner of the shop where I work, he has promised me that he will get me admitted in a government school nearby as soon as schools reopen. I am really eager to resume my studies and go to school,” Khan says.

“Owner says that he will also teach me how to calculate and deal with customers. That way I will be eligible to work at bigger shops too,” he adds.

“I don’t want much from next year. I just want to be able to afford a room where I can live in winters or even a bed in a shared room somewhere. I don’t feel comfortable sleeping on streets. Many are here out of habit and keep shouting. It makes really difficult for me to sleep at night,” he adds.

Hoping to resume education

Satyam Kumar Sharma, another child from the same group volunteers to share his story and wishes from the upcoming year too.

The 16-year-old shelter resident ran away from his home in Noida and came to the Mori Gate shelter on his own. Satyam speaks of an abusive mother. He says the caretaker of his shelter home got him a sweeper’s job in a restaurant in Connaught place.

Satyam’s hope for 2021 epitomises the dream of a better future that many arrive in Delhi with – he wants to become a doctor. He came to Delhi three months ago, and is hoping to get enrolled in school the next academic session.

“I used to go to school in Noida. I want to go back to school. I want to become a doctor. That is what I hope 2021 brings,” he says.

“But I also know that thousands like me hope of similar things every year and a million dreams like mine are crushed every year,” he adds dolefully.

With the temperature dipping and the pandemic raging on, the Delhi government has made an ambitious promise of establishing 250 shelters across the city for the homeless. However, as millions of adults also compete with the homeless children for very limited space in shelter homes, often it is the children who are forced to sleep on roads.

According to the patchy data available, India still has more than 1.7 million homeless people, of which 938,384 are located in urban areas. In the national capital Delhi alone, at any given point of time, there are about 150,000-200,000 homeless people, out of which at least 20,000 are children, said to be the highest in the world.

Besides bus terminals and railway stations, the space under the numerous flyovers in the country’s urban areas are the favourite haunts for the homeless children to find shelter.

In the absence of any data on their actual numbers, age, gender or any other socio-economic parameters, it is nearly impossible to gauge the impact of the pandemic, winters or even the number of children who may have suffered exploitation or abuse.

Despite the torrid conditions and little change in their situation for years, the children remain optimistic about the future. Another group of street children, almost all between the age group of 10 and 15, have similar aspirations from the New Year and are waiting eagerly near the Central Park for the film to begin.

When a little girl, who is also part of the group, calls out to them saying that the film is about to start, the six rush towards the make-shift white screen in Central Park, hoping to not miss even a second of the film.

The film has started and it is almost certain to keep them spellbound for the next three hours or so. Without realising it, the children will slide into 2021, which is just as well. For they don’t really exist for most of the people who are out on the streets, or in the fancy restaurants and hotels that line the heart of the national capital. Not just other people, most of these children don’t even exist for the government that is supposed to take care of them. Whatever wishes they have for the New Year can only come true if they also display the same extra-terrestrial courage and determination that Salman Khan shows on the screen.

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