Every child should be the director of their own destiny

My visit to the Delhi-based Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) commenced in the bustling Paharganj area. This was not a usual office meeting and my visit took place in the form of a guided tour around the city by two former street children – Tariq and Sangeeta. Known as the City Walk programme, it has become a well-known way to get an insiders’ perspective on the city. The initiative was started in 2006 by John Thompson, a volunteer from the UK who wanted to create awareness for the organisation’s work as well as give the children an opportunity to learn English communication skills by interacting with visitors.

As I was taken around the city, I was impressed by the communication skills of the guides and their sound knowledge which ensured all my questions were answered. After a tour around the backstreets of the Main Bazaar, I was taken to a contact point which is situated in the New Delhi Railway station complex. I learnt that SBT has contact points across the city. 17 in total, contact points aim to identify and care for vulnerable children as soon as they arrive in the city. Once the team has welcomed a child into a contact point, they give them a medical checkup, followed by aid, if needed. The team then attempts to trace the child’s family and understand how they have ended up in their current situation. The main aim of these centres is to remove the children from the streets, as soon as possible, and send them back to their home/family, if the conditions are favourable for the child to go back home; though many of the children have ran away from home due to abuse or neglect so this option is not always feasible. Registration/necessary paper work is done at these contact points and the child is produced in front of the Child Welfare Committee (a Government body comprising of social workers) which looks after the care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of the children as well as to provide for their basic needs and human rights. The families are informed about the whereabouts of the child and if they think that it is in the best interest of the child to go back home to his/her family, then the child is restored (with six months follow –up) otherwise the child is sent to a children’s home. If the child wants the SBT’s continued support, they are encouraged to join one of their full-care residential centres.

As I walked into the contact point, I saw a group of enthusiastic children sitting cross-legged, learning Hindi from one of the SBT-employed teachers. Many of these children have had none or very little formal education when they reach the contact points so they are taught basic Hindi, English and Mathematics. The contact points are open all day and they also provide children with food, toilet facilities, clothing and counselling. After my visit here I was taken to Aasra. Started in 1992, it is one of SBT’s residential shelters. Residential shelters were started after the success of the contact points and the need for further rehabilitation. SBT has 5 shelter homes, 3 for boys and 2 for girls and together they care for approximately 400 children in the age group of 6-18 years. All these centres were established to address different needs of children. For example, Aasra is a short stay residential house for boys for new children or those waiting to find their families. The girls home, Aarushi, was opened to address the vulnerabilities of girls to sexual abuse and exploitation in railway stations and lonely streets.

Founder Mrs.Praveen Nair has places great importance on the individual needs of each child; so care plans for each child are formed depending on their personal needs. Mrs. Nair believes that the SBT model is a ‘pathway to rehabilitation’, starting with the contact centres, to the shelter homes where further care is provided to ensure growth and restoration and then rehabilitation will ensue. While education is an important part of the organisation’s work, in the words of Mrs. Nair herself, “education is not the answer, but education linked with livelihoods is the answer for street children.” I found it very interesting that creation of a stimulating environment was a focus of the organisation. SBT works on talent development,encourages sports and the children go on regular outings from places such as the zoo to the Taj Mahal.

I witnessed the boys taking classes and got the opportunity to hear some of their personal stories. Boys as young as six had run away from home, on impulse, and made their way to the capital of the country – all alone. On hearing their stories, I was truly grateful that there was an NGO like SBT to accommodate their needs after their immense act of courage. I talked with 11-year-old Shameem and learnt that he had escaped the poverty of his home and the constant beatings of his school teacher in his village in Jharkhand. He was petrified when he arrived in Delhi as there were ‘so many people’! After a series of unfortunate events involving betrayal and further abuse by people he met along the way, he was found by an SBT social worker and now happily lives in the residential care home.

Poonam Sharma, an executive council member of the organisation, spoke of the hardships these childrenface. They come to Delhi expecting a bright future but infact face a harsh reality. She spoke of the immense number of children and that many new children are found every day, with numbers increasing with each day, which has left each of SBT’s homes exceeding its capacity. Poonam stressed the importance of the child’s family; that she wants to ‘make them accountable’ and reunite them in a loving environment.

I admired SBT’s focus on the individual child and this quote from Mrs. Nair which summed up SBT’s aims pretty well, ‘every child should be the director of their own destiny’. This motivation to see the children grow is highlighted by examples of children who are now successful adults in mainstream society. Children like Amit. Amit was born into a family which did not value education as meaningful. He fled to Delhi from West Bengal at the age of 12 and was eventually found by SBT. He was admitted to a government school and his education flourished, passing Class 10 with 86% marks. He went on to study engineering at a reputed institution in Chennai where he received his B.Tech degree. He is now employed as an electrical engineer and he has plans to do an M.Tech, and eventually a PhD.

Long term vision:
SBT wants to focus its future efforts on improving the quality of the facilities they provide to street children. They are realistic in their goals and recognise that the services have to be sustainable before expansion can occur. They want to keep working with the best interest of the child in mind and always put their futures first, providing them with every possible opportunity. SBT hopes to invest more time into the vocational side of the child’s life so that when they reach adulthood they can provide an income for themselves. Another aim is to develop the City Walk programme which has recently expanded to include a heritage walk through the walled city built by Shahjahan. The walks raise awareness and bring in many donations from travellers who want to contribute to the work of SBT.

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