By Pallika Singh
Street children as defined by United Nations (UN) are children working/living on the street, whose families are on the street or children who’ve run away from their families and are living on the streets. While there is no recently published data, the UNICEF in the year 2000, estimated 18 million street children in India, which is the highest in the world. Away from the basic needs and opportunities, they are deprived of family care, protection, and face abuse, neglect, and death. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child broadly mentions the right to protection from exploitation and abuse, right to an adequate standard of living and nutrition to ensure proper development, and protection from bonded labour, right to education, right to adoption as well as right to name and nationality; these rights were also adopted by the Constitution of India.
Despite these laws and efforts, children are pushed into child labour, trafficking, and exploitation. The overall condition of children worsened during the pandemic due to the economic downfall, closing of schools, increased exposure of children to the abusive adults in their homes during extended lockdowns around the world. According to the UNICEF India report 2020, interrupted learning impacted 286 million children, with increase in the school dropout rates due to the closure of schools during the pandemic. The lockdown and its extension significantly impacted nearly 40 million children belonging to the poor and underprivileged families such as children of migrants, children working on farms and fields in rural areas, and street children.
The challenges on the street and the policy shortcomings
Economic crisis and extreme poverty, abandonment, and dysfunctional families are common push factors of creating more street children. According to a report, 356 million children, i.e., 17.5 percent children, live in extreme poverty, which means existing on less than US $1.90 a day. Hence, street children are a result of a combination of factors. Unemployment, poverty, violence at home, family disintegration, lack of shelter, rural-urban migration, displacement due to floods, drought or any other calamity are cited as some of the major reasons for the growing menace as well as social exclusion within societies with high inequalities. Often cited as push factors that encourage or forces children onto the streets. These problem families usually struggle to cope up with overcrowded housing situations, leading to increased health risks and poor access to basic services. Unstable and violent circumstances within the family can weaken the family connections with the children, interrupt their access to adequate schooling, weaken their educational and scholastic performance, affect their friendships and other relationships, and weaken their connections with the school and the community they live in. Other causes that lead to the streets include diseases like HIV/AIDS and leprosy, harmful practices such as early and forced marriages, and social phenomenon like wars and internal displacement.
Absence of any reliable data source and data availability with no thorough surveys done on the issue till date has added on to the problem, raising concern about the seriousness attributed to the issue. The prevalence of this asocial phenomena is nowhere measured, leading to poor policy formulation and programme implementation for their welfare. All the surveys and estimates done by the private NGOs presents with different data of different magnitudes. No government agency has drawn the responsibility of counting the number of the children living on the streets in India. The Delhi government did come up with a policy document to define street children along with various interventions and guidelines to empower child welfare committees to take legal actions but all in vain. The policy which came up in June 2021 has still a lot to prove in terms of beneficiaries. It involved rescue and rehabilitation of street children, along with projects like Bal Samvad for awareness generation regarding health andhygiene, and project “Suroyadaya” for holistic well-being of such children under 18 years of age. The policy also mentions training street children as civil defence volunteers which sounds very disconnected with the whole scenario of this menace of street children and its solutions as children still fight forbasic needs on the street. No programme is valid until the data is made available through impact indicators and the beneficiaries actually benefitting from the policy. The government gives data on people living in poverty, but nothing on the children living in poverty on the streets, their diseases, malnutrition, addictions, and crimes committed as well as exploitation faced by them.
India, with its large youth population and positive impacts of this demographic dividend has led to an ever-increasing economy. The global concern for this social pathology of street children is fading with time. These children are subjected to malnutrition and hunger, and often end the day with no food. Unemployed, they usually end up giving into theft, substance abuse, and child labour.
What the female street children face in terms of sexual exploitation, physical abuse, and harassment is way higher which often goes unreported. War and internal displacement within countries is also a pathway leading to streets as female adolescents and children are often deliberately killed in extremely brutal ways in war zones. They are often abducted from their homes, schools, and refugee camps, exploited for labour, sexual slavery, and trafficked. The psychosocial impacts of such disasters can cause anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), and substance abuse amongst these children. Street children are abusing wide range of substances, from inhalants to cigarettes and drugs like cocaine, smack, and charas. According to the Magnitude of substance use in India 2019 report, inhalants are the only category of substances which are the most prevalent amongst children and adolescents. Despite Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 in place along with overlapping of various ministries, none of them have specific schemes targeted at these vulnerable groups addicted to drugs, and thus, the problem remains overlooked. The lack of time, time-taking legal processes, no defined infrastructure and financial resources, and non-functioning child welfare centres add on to the problem of drug abuse amongst the children on the streets. Rehabilitation and reintegration of rescued street children is a major task which requires supervising manpower, health clinics, and educational support with monitoring at each step. This eventually leads to children escaping from such shelters and rescue homes and returning back to the streets.
The lack of income is often responsible for making them a high risk population to face abuse and mental health issues with more vulnerability as well as exposure to unfavourable socio-economic circumstances. They are more prone to diseases, especially HIV/AIDS due to high prevalence of intravenous drug abuse, and other sexually transmitted diseases; this has isolated these children to a socially excluded and stigmatised community. Sexual exploitation and abuse usually puts the homeless youth to high risk early and teenage pregnancy, which increases mortality amongst the girls due to poor access to healthcare. It makes them and their new born more vulnerable to the social pathologies, giving birth to more homeless families and street children. Globally, nearly 20 percent of children under the age of five live in extreme poverty. With the lack of personal identification documents and no school enrolment, utilisation of health and nutritional programmes, and access to food security and take-home rations or mid-day meals seems difficult and beyond reach. These children are, thus, kept away from the benefits of various nutritional programmes like Poshan Abhiyan (ICDS and Mid-day meal schemes) where mention of such beneficiaries is nowhere to be seen.
Forced child beggary
Thousands of children are abducted in India and forced into begging, adding on to the problem of street children. According to the National Human Rights Commission, around 40,000 children are abducted every single year and over 25 percent of them remain untraced. India still misses a powerful anti-human trafficking law with heavy punishments as it still awaits amendments in the Parliament. What’s more worrying is that estimated 300,000 children across India are drugged, assaulted, and then made to beg on the streets. Street children also become victims of trafficking by force and trickery which involves drug abuse, and the females are the most vulnerable to be pushed into prostitution and human trafficking across international borders or within the country. They are separated from their own environment, isolated, and are ill-treated, unable to seek help. Despite Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 and the Child Labour Act, 2016 in place which provides protection to children, punishments against begging, unauthorised hawking and hazardous child labour, there are still well-established multimillion dollar industry influenced by human trafficking cartels. Involvement of police and organisations is quite vague and inadequate to address the problem as India has no federal law against begging and destitution, especially for young children.
It is important to set up of child guidance clinics including psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists to guide and counsel the children who are alienated from their families and society. It is also imperative to have an elaborate survey and to develop a data management system by a unified body to measure the absolute prevalence of street children in the country in each state, identifying the hotspots and the causes associated with it. This data system should be incorporated with GIS mapping to identify areas of concern and keep an eye on social misconducts and help in decision-making and implementation of plans and programmes. The development of shelter homes, identification the homeless people, and incorporation into the national development by encouraging utilisation of health and nutrition programmes, social security schemes will prove to be helpful Finding such children is not enough, but their rehabilitation should be focused upon to avoid these children from re-entering this cycle of exploitation. A sanctioned budget and schemes for empowering rescued street children especially girls need to be instated. Providing health services and legal aid in cases of human trafficking-assaults and drug abuse, providing access to welfare schemes and income opportunities to ensure their economic stability and placing them back into their community and family need to initiate. Job training and skill development will provide them this financial freedom. Accessibility to safe shelter homes with one-stop services for the victims is equally important.
Sensitisation and awareness regarding the impacts of drug abuse amongst young and adolescent age group is important. With lakhs of children on the streets who need to be rescued and rehabilitated, developing secure adoption policies, and laws to curb human trafficking should be set up. Regulation and prohibition on child beggary, roadside hawkers, and begging rackets and scams need to be discussed amongst the policymakers to come up with solutions and execute them at the district level. District planning committee as well as Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) and local self-governments can play important roles in the implementation process to prevent such negative deviance in the society that has a strong hold on the socio-cultural connect of the community. Violence against Children need special mention from the authorities in the country which have failed to provide equal opportunity to all children as well as recognition to the problem of street children in India.