The most eye opening campaign that I have covered so far has been the Railway Children campaign by Tindrum Beats. Tindrum Beats is a production company, crowdfunding to create a docu-drama on the topic of street children, particularly railway children.
The travails of street children in India had never caught my eye. I always knew that it was a big problem and that a lot needed to be done about it. What surprised me was the gravity of the situation! . Numbers do paint a dreadful picture in this case. For instance, in Yeshwanthpur railway station alone, at least ten runaway children are caught per day.
SATHI is one such organization that works towards rehabilitating runaway children in India. In India, it is estimated that there are nearly 22 million street children. That is nearly 7% of the child population in India.
But, these are all just estimates, no real effort has been made to create a database or even conduct surveys. There are a lot of obstacles in attempting such a task. Firstly, governments and NGOs define street children in different ways. Secondly, since street children are constantly moving, it is difficult to avoid double counting or other survey related errors.
SATHI has rehabilitated close to 47,000 children since starting off in the 90’s. What sets them apart is their professional approach towards tackling the issue! Led by Mr. Pramodh Kulkarni, a graduate of IIM - A, the sea change that they have brought in terms of taking the right approach is remarkable.
The first assumption that people make about street children is that there is a lack of support from their family. SATHI has noted that close to 89.8% of all runaway children have lived with family. Abandonment as a push factor was the cause in less than 10% of the cases, antithetical to popular opinion. The main reasons were poverty, abuse, and peer influence. There were many cases where children's fantasies to meet Bollywood stars played a motivation.
Once on the streets, their living conditions are deplorable. Most children work as rag pickers, hawkers, and shoeshine boys. They are constantly exposed to rain, heat and cold depending on the weather and most of them suffer from chronic diseases.
I was shocked to find out that a majority of children end up getting into substance dependence. Some even end up becoming sex addicts owing to life on the streets. They are poverty-stricken and have to struggle to meet their basic survival needs.
The innovative idea that SATHI came up with was to send the children back to their homes. As I had mentioned earlier, in most cases family support existed for the children.
Families accept their children back with open arms. For nearly 80% of all cases, children did not run away again. SATHI came up with a metric called retention rate to measure this. They started collecting data about each and every runaway child they came across. They have their workers present in many railway stations across India, 23 in Karnataka itself. These staff scout the stations for children who seem lost and bring them to a shelter near the station.
Once in the shelter, they talk to the children and collect as much information as possible on them. The data-points they collect include details of whether the father is an alcoholic, whether the child lives with step parents, general family situation, living conditions, time spent on the streets, habits, history of abuse, socio-economic condition they come from so on and so forth.
A complete profile of the child is created with proper tabulations of different characteristics. A large number of children are found to be addicts. To combat this, they are sent to rehabilitation camps for de-addiction. The children are counseled, and their problems and issues are understood to arrive at appropriate solutions. The children’s families are identified, contacted and asked to visit the SATHI shelter home or the government child home, where the children are staying.
In most cases (about 70-75 percent), the children are reunited with their parents, while in other cases, the children are referred to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). Needless to say, the emotional sight of the family reunions at SATHI shelter homes remains a spirit of joy. The decision to reunite the children with their parents is taken based on the data collected about the children. They compare the data with the huge database of past cases and look at retention rates to come to a conclusion.
Fortunately, I was able to meet one such street child at their Yeshwanthpur centre. His name was Trilokee and he was from rural Bihar. He was a normal school-going child who used to live with his parents. He had studied till class 7 in an English medium school. He even corrected me when I spelt his name with a single E. He left his hometown in search of work, bored with life, and influenced by his peers, he made the decision to move out. Lack of oversight by his parents led this 14-year-old astray and got him into drugs and alcohol. Now, he is currently put up in the Yeshwanthpur shelter till his brother comes and takes him back.
Once home placement is done, SATHI does two types of follow ups to understand the retention behavior of these home placed children, one being physical and the other being telephonic.
In a physical follow up, the staff speaks with the children, their parents, and relatives. Opinions of the people in the neighborhood, and the school teachers, in some cases, are also gathered. The responses are collected in the form of a questionnaire and a brief write up by the staff. The questionnaire consists of about 150 questions, that include responses from the child, parents/guardians and an assessment of the staff about the quality of home placement. Based on answers to these questions, the staff analyses whether the child has stopped deviant behaviour, started studying or in general has shown a positive change.
Category wise retention rates are analysed to help SATHI make better decisions on further home placements.
The level of analysis done and the technical capability that SATHI has built would even put some corporates to shame. The impact here is in the numbers, 47,000 children have so far been rehabilitated and given a fresh start in life.
I was also able to spend a couple of hours with the film crew of the movie Railway Children. The movie is inspired by the incidences SATHI has experienced. They had been filming for eight straight days when I visited them, and they were exhausted. Still, the director Prithvi Konnanur was kind enough to let me take photos and interview the cast and crew. The story that they are working on is powerful and will surely create waves in the international arena. True to their word, they are highlighting a problem unknown to most people by means of a remarkable story. Below are some photos from their movie