Taking A Walk Into the Lives Of India's Street Kids More than 300,000 children are believed to live on the streets of New Delhi. A walking tour of the area around the railway station introduces tourists to the plight of such children and the efforts of a local nonprofit to help them and, if possible, to reunite them with their families.
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A Strange Tourist Attraction: India's Street Kids

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A Strange Tourist Attraction: India's Street Kids

A Strange Tourist Attraction: India's Street Kids

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The film "Slumdog Millionaire" was the first time many people outside India got a sense of what life is like for millions of street kids in that country. Now, a group in New Delhi is tapping into the tourism industry to try and expose more people to the harsh realities of that world. It offers a tour conducted by street kids on their own turf.

NPR's Corey Flintoff went along.

COREY FLINTOFF: Satender Sharma is shepherding about a dozen tourists into the maze of alleyways that surrounds the New Delhi railway station.

Mr. SATENDER SHARMA: In this walk, I will tell you more about the street life, how children comes on the street, what they are doing.

FLINTOFF: It's an unlikely tourist destination: noisy, smoky, smelly, crowded and chaotic. Satender is an unlikely tour guide. He ran away from home at the age of 11 to escape an abusive father.

Mr. SHARMA: My father used to beated up all our family. One day, he beated my mom very badly, and he killed her.

FLINTOFF: Satender stowed away aboard a train and ended up, alone and penniless, at a railway station in New Delhi.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Children in India's railway stations face predators of all kinds, but Satender learned that kids can live by their wits: Boys can make money by begging, picking pockets or scavenging empty bottles to sell.

Satender leads the tour to a small square. It's like a scene from Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," where boys are selling empty whiskey bottles to a trash dealer. A ragged man is breaking an old sofa into firewood.

Mr. SHARMA: They are doing this kind of job. It will earn him more than 200 rupees every day.

FLINTOFF: Two hundred rupees is about $4.50, a lot of money in a country where about 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

But there's a catch. Street children have no place to keep the money they earn where it won't be stolen, by adults, by bigger kids, and sometimes by corrupt police. They have to spend it or lose it every day.

Food isn't a problem. The kids can get free food at a nearby Sikh temple that feeds the homeless, or they can steal it from the railway kitchens.

Mr. SHARMA: There are two mains: drugs and entertainment.

FLINTOFF: The entertainment of choice is movies, where kids can also sleep and avoid the police. They also spend a lot on video games in hole-in-the-wall arcades.

The drugs of choice are glue and typewriter correction fluid. Satender explains that kids who do inhalants are usually dead before they reach their late teens.

The fate of girls on the streets is even grimmer than that of boys. Almost all are scooped up by brokers who sell them into prostitution.

Satender was found by a social worker from a group called the Salaam Baalak Trust. Salaam Baalak means hello, street kid.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The group has contact points around the city, like this one next to the New Delhi train station. It's a mini shelter where the kids can come in for a meal and a place to sleep.

A half-dozen grimy boys huddle over a game board. Satender says that for many of these kids, life on the street is better than what they left behind, and it offers them a kind of freedom that's hard to give up.

The counselors here don't try to get the kids to come in off the street until they're ready, says P.N. Mishra, a member of Salaam Baalak's executive board. Some of them opt to go home.

Mr. P.N. MISHRA (Salaam Baalak Trust): And then we are trying to restore them back to their family. Every year, we restore six to 700 children in different part of India.

FLINTOFF: One boy who's waiting to go home has come all the way from Nepal. He's 13-year-old Saras Karo(ph), who says he ran away to escape a bad situation at his father's house.

Mr. SARAS KARO: I ran away from house because I have one stepmother who don't like me. I also don't like her. So I ran away from house. I want to go with my own mother with little (unintelligible).

FLINTOFF: Counselors say they're trying to find an address for the boy's mother so they can send him to her. Kids who can't or won't go home can move into one of Salaam Baalak's shelters.

Satender leads his tour upstairs to the community center where he spent six months before he trusted the counselors enough to tell them where he came from.

Today is TV day, and about two dozen boys huddle like puppies under blankets while they watch cartoons. Mishra says the kids can get some schooling here and medical attention as well. When they're ready for the next step, they can go to one of Salaam Baalak's five homes, two for girls and three for boys.

The tour ends here. Very few tourists who take the walk seem to find it a depressing experience. Most, like American Catherine Farnsworth, say they were heartened by the kids' resilience and spirit.

Ms. CATHERINE FARNSWORTH: There's no shame involved or anything. They're just telling their stories and living their lives and - yeah.

FLINTOFF: Mishra says the idea for the tour came from a British volunteer who worked at the shelter two years ago. The volunteer conceived of the tours as a way for the older kids to improve their English and gain confidence in dealing with people.

But Mishra says it has helped sensitize visitors, foreign and Indian alike, to the problems of street children.

Mr. MISHRA: So this is a very important program, and this program is running, too, with the help of our older kids.

FLINTOFF: He says street kids who've taken part in the trust's programs have gone on to a variety of jobs, ranging from highway toll collectors to engineers, and they include a Bollywood movie actor and an internationally known photographer. You might meet them anywhere, he says.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi.

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