A report by ActionAid and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences highlights the vulnerability and tragic living conditions of thousands of children who take shelter in Mumbai’s streets. By ANUPAMA KATAKAM

IN 1988, the acclaimed film-maker Mira Nair made Salaam Bombay!, a poignantly revealing film on street children in Mumbai. The plot revolves around the protagonist, Krishna or “Chaipau”, who is kicked out of his home by his mother for having damaged his brother’s bicycle and is told he can come back only if he can make good the loss. He is abandoned by the travelling circus he joins. In desperation, he comes to Mumbai with nothing more than a few rupees and is robbed of it immediately. With nowhere to go and no one to help him, he lives on the streets. Abused and beaten, Krishna eventually finds protection under a drug pusher who finds him work as a tea boy. After a failed attempt at theft, Krishna lands in a juvenile centre. He escapes, but it is not a happy ending. Krishna goes back to the world of petty crime, drugs and prostitution hoping that he will return to his mother some day.

Twenty-five years hence not much has changed. A report titled “Making Street Children Matter”, based on a first-time census of street children in Mumbai conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and ActionAid, a non-governmental organisation, estimates that in 2013 there were 37,059 street children who continued to face the same brutality that Krishna witnessed. The census exposes the vulnerability and tragic living conditions of thousands of children who take shelter in the city’s streets.

It finds that almost 24 per cent of the children are illiterate; 15 per cent are addicted to drugs; 40 per cent have witnessed and/or experienced some form of abuse; and almost 24 per cent are engaged in activities such as begging, doing odd jobs, ragpicking and construction work.



The report brings out many disturbing facts on child labour, illiteracy, physical and sexual abuse, and forced starvation. The report, in its conclusion, states that it was “a very challenging exercise but worthwhile as it may have broken a few myths and raised some questions about the magnitude of the issue”.

It acknowledges that these problems can be traced to larger issues of poverty, unemployment, migration, discrimination, and so on. “After the 2011 Census data was released, we found that the urban population grew much more than the rural. Much of the population growth was due to distress migration, and people living on the streets were a result of this distress. Children on the streets are a structural problem and that spurred us to conduct this census,” said Alex George from ActionAid.

“The idea of a census is to present the hard numbers. The State often dismisses a sample survey saying it’s not indicative of a larger problem. A census they take seriously. The Maharashtra government has accepted our recommendations in toto,” he said.

“Mumbai being the commercial capital of the country, the findings from the study would help [us] understand processes of marginalisation of vulnerable groups in mega cities,” said Vijay Raghavan from the Centre of Criminology and Justice at TISS.

“Governments respond only when you show [them] a number. I believe this number is still conservative because we had to follow a certain methodology. But we captured the number to the extent we could. The recommendations emerging from the study need to be taken forward by the government and civil society through advocacy efforts,” he said.

The methodologyRaghavan explained that a quantitative research design was adopted for the study. It had two parts: a census and a sample survey of 728 children. The first part included a headcount of street children living in Mumbai as per the most widely used United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) definition of street children. UNICEF classifies street children under three categories: (i) children who run away from their families and live on their own; (ii) street working children who spend most of their time on the streets fending for themselves but return home on a regular basis; and (iii) street family children who live on the streets with their families.

A tool was designed to secure details such as age, sex, category of the child vis-a-vislocation, health status, education, disability and addiction. The survey was based on structured interviews that sought information about socio-economic status, education, work, and family background. This was crucial in understanding the reasons for children living on the streets and made the report comprehensive, said Raghavan. Because of the nature of this population, the census had to be conducted very quickly. Close to 100 enumerators had to fan out across the metropolis and do the headcount within three days. If there was a gap, the chances of a double count would occur as the children moved constantly, said Raghavan.



A total of 36,154 children were found across 25 wards of Mumbai and another 905 children were found along the city’s railway tracks, taking the overall total to 37,059. The highest number of street children—2,802 (7.75 per cent)—were found in S-Ward; D-Ward was next, with 2,312 (6.39 per cent).

The report says there is a direct correlation between the political economy of the wards and the population of street children. For instance, the two most populated wards are mostly commercial areas with a bustling, robust informal economy such as marketplaces, railway lines, bus depots, construction sites and places of worship.

It says that almost 65 per cent of the children lived with families on the street. The next largest group was street working children, at 24 per cent. About 8 per cent of the children lived on the street by themselves, which makes them the most vulnerable category, says the report.

The highest number of children on the streets was in the age group between 16 and 18 years. It notes that the number of girls decreased as the age of respondents increased. The reasons for this are that the girls were either married off young or trafficked, or pushed into exploitative relationships.

Data show that almost 24 per cent of the children were illiterate. Of the 5,467 children counted between the ages of four and six, only 1,724 children went to balwadis. Twenty-two per cent of the children had studied up to Class 3 and 20 per cent up to Class 7.

Obviously, occupation was a sensitive topic given that child labour is illegal; however, the enumerators were able to gather enough data on this count, too. The report finds that 11.5 per cent of the children sold flowers, newspapers and fruit on the street; 9 per cent worked in eateries; 7.9 per cent begged; 5.5 per cent were ragpickers; 2.5 per cent worked in construction; and 2.5 per cent did small jobs such as playing in wedding bands, basket-making, household work, loading, polishing shoes, ironing, tailoring and selling scrap.

According to the report, the living conditions of almost all the children were subhuman. While some found night shelters run by NGOs, many lived near garbage dumps, sewerage pipelines, open gutters, railway and bus stations, parks/gardens and shops, on beaches, under flyovers, and at places of tourism.

Obviously, health was a critical factor and while the census did not conduct medical examinations, enumerators observed that several children were unwell, had bruises or just looked unhealthy. Nearly 2.55 per cent of the children suffered from some disability and most of these children begged for a living.

A shocking 15 per cent of the children were addicted to drugs, whitener, tobacco, polish and similar substances that are cheap yet dangerous. Enumerators, in fact, found it difficult to approach several children who were clearly addicts and it required patience and persistence to arrive at these numbers.



Mumbai’s local railway, also known as the city’s lifeline, has been home to thousands of street children and the homeless almost since it was built. The census found 905 children on the platforms, with many working through a well-oiled system—begging or selling sundry items. For instance, they would never be seen during peak hours as that is when vigilance of the authorities is at the highest. Those who worked on the western line would not work the other lines.

TISS and ActionAid interviewed 728 children for a detailed sample survey in order to get a clearer picture. These are some of facts that emerge from the survey:

Around 52.2 per cent of the respondents were found on footpaths and traffic signals. Mirroring the census findings, the survey data show that 61.5 per cent of the children resided with their families on the streets, 24.2 per cent did not live with their families but had contact with them, and 6.9 per cent had no contact with their families.

It finds that 69.6 per cent of the children earned an income, while the rest did not. Most often, work was done in exchange for food and shelter.

Hunger was one of the most disturbing realities, says the study. Having no money for food was the most cited reason for 72.2 per cent of the children who missed meals.

Another was abuse. According to the survey, 44.1 per cent of the children reported that they had seen or heard of their peers being abused. The nature of abuse recorded by the enumerators included torture, beatings, forced starvation and sexual abuse. One child told the interviewer that owing to the lack of space to sleep, there would often be fights at night which attracted police attention. The police would chase them away from the area and they would have to sleep in the open and expose themselves to all manner of abuse.

The survey explores the reasons for children being on the streets and whether they have knowledge of or contact with their families. It finds that 88.5 per cent of the children were aware of their place of origin. However, 50.8 per cent indicated that they had landed on the streets owing to disturbed home conditions, 15.8 per cent came in search of jobs or to pursue dreams, including that of joining the film industry. Around 7.7 per cent indicated they had run away and another 11 per cent indicated their parents had sent them away. Abuse, violence, poverty and hunger, kidnapping, getting lost and natural calamities were other reasons given for reaching Mumbai’s streets.

Field notes


Apart from the numbers that reveal a crisis, the report also weaves in heart-wrenching field notes from surveyors. Here are a few samples: “Shouting and verbal abuse are an everyday occurrence.” “Some children said they had been brought from their village to study but were made to work here.” “Dharavi had many children who work in the night and go to school in the morning.” “Saw children working in marriage halls.” “Many were working in shops but the owners would not let us talk to them.” “One asked us if he gave up ragpicking could we get him a proper job.” “Some children were sorting stuff out of garbage which they would sell as scrap.” “I saw a group of boys injecting some drug into their body and they were doing it fearlessly. They looked blank when they saw me.” “One woman said the police pick up children and send them to the ‘chiller room’—children’s home.”

Here is a sampling of what some of the children said to the field workers: “I want a place to sleep.” “If father does not sell balloons, children go hungry.” “If father does not find work, we sleep hungry. Many times we sleep hungry.” “I am a ragpicker since five years. Father is jobless and alcoholic, so we beg and give money to mother. Some of our money goes into using public toilets.”

RecommendationsAs per the directions of the Supreme Court in 2001, State governments have to construct 24-hour shelters for homeless populations in all cities with a population of more than five lakh at the rate of one shelter with a capacity of 100 per one lakh population. Mumbai, with 140 lakh people, has just two, analysts said.

The report recommends increasing the number of night shelters, at least for children. It wants the Government of Maharashtra and its relevant departments to take charge of areas such as education, health, addiction, labour and abuse. It says the Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD) must constitute a task force involving the Department of Labour, the police, the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and NGOs to devise a comprehensive strategy to address issues regarding street working children.

With regard to abuse, it suggests forming special juvenile police units and a mapping exercise of locations where street children are more vulnerable. The Crime Branch, along with social workers, should patrol the streets and reach out to these children instead of chasing them away. It appeals to the railway authorities to sensitise its employees and handle the issue in a humane manner.

It also wants the setting up of a State inter-department committee to review and monitor existing laws, policies and programmes for the vulnerable and the marginalised ones. This should be chaired by the Chief Secretary and meet at least once in six months, it says.

In 2008, Danny Boyle won eight Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, a film based on street children, though with a plot different from Mira Nair’s. We felt strongly for the celluloid characters. Yet, in reality, when that little boy attempts to sell some flowers at the traffic signal, we turn him away.

Read more here — http://www.frontline.in/social-issues/salaam-mumbai/article5538646.ece


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