14-year-old Ravi, who calls the pavement near Goregaon patri in Mumbai his home, has recently seen a drastic change in his schedule. Instead of taking an early morning train to the nearest station with his friends and occupying an available bit of space to set up his shoeshine business, he now gets dressed to go to school.
Ravi is like thousands of children we see on our daily commute, but don’t notice. They live by doing menial chores during the day on pavements that double up as beds at night. Definitions are aplenty: the homeless are those who live on pavements, streets, in pipes, under staircases, in temples, mandaps, on platforms or in the open, and not in a ‘census house’ (a structure with a roof). The homeless population can be divided into two main categories: homeless families who either live alone or in communities, and homeless individuals who live singly. The majority of the homeless are migrants who move to big towns and cities looking for better opportunities. These are the people affected by evictions, displacement, runaways, domestic issues, communal clashes, natural calamities, misfortune, and physical and mental disabilities.
The most basic requirement of not having a roof above one’s head leads to the creation of a number of other conditions, one of them an identity crisis. Having no identity proof, being labelled a ‘criminal’ by the government machinery and facing torture by police and other authorities are something the homeless constantly face and fear.
Economic exploitation is a glaring reality owing to lack of skills. They have to settle for unequal wages with no guarantee of a minimum income. The homeless communities’ temporary ‘plastic houses’ face the constant threat of demolition, which exposes them to physical as well as emotional trauma. While there are laws to protect them, like Article 21 of the Indian constitution which grants every citizen the right to life with dignity, in reality, these laws are only on paper, and the reverse is actually true: the rights of the homeless are blatantly violated.
Among the homeless, the children are the most vulnerable. Children born on the streets are denied an identity in the absence of a proper birth certificate. According to the National Family Health Survey III, India's social survey carried out in 29 states in 2005-06, over 59% of children born each year are not registered with any civil authority. Only 27% under the age of five years have a birth certificate in the country.
So how does one reach out to this extremely marginalized section of society?
CRY’s partner AAKAR works with one such community. AAKAR first establishes rapport with the community by engaging with the children. They organize games and educational activities to bring children together and build an interest in them to go to school. Simultaneously, they work with parents to motivate them to send their children to school. They also urge parents to take an active part in the educational process, and sensitize school staff to understand homelessness and the issues that these children face vis-à-vis registration in schools.
In Ravi’s community, after over a year of regular meetings and interaction, AAKAR’s social workers were able to enrol about 20 children into the state run school. Ravi’s mother was one of the parents who ensured all her children went to school. The parents have formed a PTA and take an interest in the school’s functioning, especially in supervising the midday meals being prepared at the school. Though a few children from the community have dropped out, most continue to attend school. AAKAR also regularly talks to the relevant authorities to organize identity cards (like an Aadhar card) so that the community has access to government schemes.
Today, Ravi studies in class 8, while his sisters are in classes 7 and 5. His parents are convinced education in an important stepping stone in breaking the cycle of homelessness that plagues the community in Goregaon patri. With the children going to school regularly, AAKAR has formed child groups to help children access information and activities that will aid in their development. When asked what they would like to become when they grow up, the children still cannot express their opinions. This will be the next challenge Aakar will take up: finding creative ways to open up new avenues for the children to look forward to when they think about the future, a future that would infuse them with the desire and the tools to break the cycle their parents are trapped in.
Suma Ravi is regional director, Child Relief & You (CRY).