Street Kids Give Guided Tours of New Delhi
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now a story from India. These days, reports from that country are often about the booming hi-tech economy or the growing middle class, but this month UNICEF reported that India has the highest number of undernourished children in the world, 57 million. That's one-third of the total.
In the capital, New Delhi, some street kids have discovered they can earn income by putting their world on display. Mandy Cunningham sent us this report.
AMANDA CUNNINGHAM reporting:
It's a hot, overcast morning. A handful of foreign tourists gather under a large tree near the railway station. They've come for a tour that is not in the guidebooks. This is one of the busiest railway stations in the world, but these tourists, from Canada and Finland, are not boarding a train. In fact, they're not going very far at all.
Mr. SHEKHAR SAINI (Tour Guide): Yeah, hi. Good morning. I'm Shekhar Saini from Salaam Baalak Trust...
CUNNINGHAM: Shekhar Saini is still getting used to his new role as a tour guide. His job is to show people the lives of some of Delhi's street kids. He's not a professional guide, but he knows his subject well. When he was 12 years old, he ran away from home, and like many other children, he came to live in New Delhi's chaotic railway station.
Mr. SAINI: So this is platform number one. This is a luxury platform where the luxury trains arrive. So because of that, police wants to keep off children to this platform. So whenever, you know, they see the children on the platform, they beat them and throw them out.
CUNNINGHAM: As Shekhar leads the tour group around, he describes how the children outwit the police, how they board trains to collect trash and leftover food, either to eat or to sell to the deuceman(ph) on platform five. He also wants the visitors to understand that although the children sometimes steal, they often work for a living.
Mr. SAINI: They do many kind of work, rat-picking, shoe shining, work at a tea stall, so they spend those money on the movie, because, you know, the children are really crazy about the films.
CUNNINGHAM: The children are so eager to see Bollywood movies, Shekhar says that sometimes they stowaway on a train and go all the way to Bombay, a thousand miles away, to see an opening.
Mr. SAINI: (Foreign language spoken)
RADJU(ph) (Four-year-old Street Child): (Foreign language spoken)
CUNNINGHAM: Shekhar chats with four-year-old Radju, who lives in the station with his father. He says he sleeps in a hollow under a pedestrian bridge. Radju is one of an estimated two-and-a-half thousand children who live in New Delhi's railway station.
Every day more kids arrive. Some are caught and returned to their villages. Others are approached by gang leaders and pimps the moment they leave the train. The second tour leader for the morning is Javed. He's a 19-year-old student.
JAVED (Tour Guide): Over there you can see water tank. There gang leader lives.
CUNNINGHAM: When Javed was eight years old, he too ran away from home. He joined a railway station gang until one day he was attacked after crossing into a rival gang's territory.
JAVED: One time, you know, I was hungry. That time I wanted some food. I went somewhere. Some people come to me and caught me and started to beat. I was asking why are you beating me? They didn't answer me and, you know, after that they stabbed me.
CUNNINGHAM: Despite being stabbed and ending up in hospital, Javed continued to live on the streets. He found the life and the freedom hard to give up. It took another five years before he was persuaded to go into a shelter run by the Salaam Baalak Trust. The Trust also provides medical care and opportunities for the children of street dwellers to get some education.
Sitting on a carpet at the end of a railway siding are 14 children. They've come to one of the Trust help points. During the day, the kids get a bath and do some basic lessons. By nights, they sell balloons and sleep in parks. Their lives are miserable. They say their parents use the money they make selling balloons to buy drugs. But like children anywhere, they dream of a brighter future.
JAVED: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of street children speaking foreign language)
JAVED: He wants to be a inspector, policeman. Oh, he wants to be a scientist, a doctor, and now we have a lady doctor here.
CUNNINGHAM: Sitting nearby is John Thompson, a young British man who came to Delhi as a volunteer. The street kid tour is his creation.
Mr. JOHN THOMPSON (Volunteer): I'm really proud today because I've been working with them for six months, and so far today they've just done it, they've done it great. They've been very confident. And four months ago Javed didn't really speak English at all and was very shy, and they love it. I mean, they love showing people around and talking about their experiences, and also what they want to do in the future.
CUNNINGHAM: And he says that although the tour's only be running a few weeks, it's already proving popular.
Mr. THOMPSON: It's made people think about their own lives a bit differently when they see how people can live with such basic material things and actually be quite happy. It's made them go away and think a little bit about their own lives, which has been nice.
CUNNINGHAM: The tour ends in the Salaam Baalak Trust shelter, where 50 former street kids now live. Here tourists are shown what the kids can achieve, given the chance. Javed's ambition is to complete a master's degree in social work and return to his village to educate other children so they don't end up on the streets like he did.
JAVED: So thanks for coming on our tour.
Unidentified Woman: Thank you.
JAVED: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Woman: Thank you.
CUNNINGHAM: Shekhar wants to be an actor, but he also has another ambition, to take the prime minister of India on the tour. Only then, he says, will the government start to take notice of India's forgotten street children. For NPR News, I'm Mandy Cunningham in New Delhi.
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