By Dr Dharmakanta Kumbhakar
Thousands of homeless children, commonly referred to as “street children”, are found in Guwahati. There is currently no official figure of the number of street children in Guwahati, as it is difficult to obtain accurate data about them due to their floating character. A survey by an NGO in 2013 revealed 5,534 street children living in Guwahati. These children are mostly from poor families who have migrated from the rural areas of Assam and other neighbouring States. Some of them came with their families and some alone in search of a livelihood. In course of time, due to various reasons these children adopted a life of the streets in Guwahati. Once of the street, they hardly remained in contact with their parents, as the street became their home. Some of these children had ruway from their homes for various reasons. Some left home drawn by the glamour of the Guwahati city.
A majority of the street children in Guwahati are in the age group of 8-17 years. Most of them are boys with little or no education. They live in unsafe places such as street, railway platforms, parks, near temples and durgahs, in markets, under flyovers and bridges, near bus depots and stops etc. Some live in temporarily constructed huts in slums. They form groups, which become a sort of family for them. They also move in groups for security reasons. Usually the oldest child of the group becomes the decision maker. Almost 50 percent of them are self-employed as rag-pickers, hawkers and shoeshine boys; while others work in shops and establishments. Younger street children and girls are largely engaged in rag picking or in begging and the older ones are in selling wares or work in shops. Other jobs include cleaning cars, petty vending, selling small items such as balloons or sweets, selling flowers, working in small hotels, working on construction sites and working in roadside stalls or repair shops. Their work hours range between 10-13 hours a day. The older street children are sometimes engaged in activities like stealing, pick-pocketing, drug-peddling and prostitution; though this is a small proportion. The largest expense in a street child’s budget is food, which often costs 50-100 rupees a day. In order to cut down on food expenses, many children drink tea to dull hunger. The money earned by them that is not spent on food is usually quickly spent on other things, because older children and police frequently steal their money. This lack of ability to save causes severe fincial insecurity. Many spend money on entertainment, though older children also use their money to buy cigarettes, chewing tobacco, alcohol and drugs.
They have little hope for the future and do not believe their circumstances will improve. They are very mobile and reluctant to discuss their past and present. They work and live alone without adequate food, shelter, education, affection and social security. This leaves them extremely vulnerable with many of their physical, mental and social needs remaining unfulfilled. They are on their own and do not have any parental supervision or care though some do live with other homeless adults. They have little or no knowledge of their rights, leaving them especially susceptible to exploitation both as juveniles and later as adults. They are most vulnerable as they are easy victims of abuse and inhuman treatment. They are frequently exposed to all form of abuse, harassment and extortion by older street children, employers, municipal authorities, police and other people. At times police beat them for money. Older children and children with higher incomes are abused more than younger children and children with lower incomes. Most of the girl street children are molested and raped, they become teege pregnt.
The right to play of these children is almost non-existent. As they don’t have access to recreatiol facilities, they often venture into activities available to them on the street such as drug abuse, gambling, drinking etc. Majority of them have been found to choose mal-adaptive strategies; such as drinking alcohol, using drugs and visiting prostitutes as a positive coping mechanism to deal with the stress of their lives, their adverse circumstances and to survive on the streets. Substance abuse is an important concern affecting around 82 percent street children (mostly adolescent boys) in Guwahati. The ture of continuous exposure to the street and its associated life-styles make these children vulnerable to the use of psychoactive substances. Majority of the substance users are in the habit of sniffing Dendrite regularly. The other most commonly used psychoactive substances are alcohol, tobacco, canbis, whitener, cocaine, opiates or hallucinogens. Few of them use intra venous drugs also. Most of them use more than one type of substance. NGOs and Government should come forward to curb this problem and save millions of vulnerable lives.
These children are exposed to high health hazards due to unhygienic conditions of living. Having no shelter, they are constantly exposed to environmental conditions of heat, cold and rain. They face additiol vulnerability because of their lack of access to nutritious food, sanitation and medical care. They lack access to nutritious food because many are dependent on leftovers from small restaurants or hotels, food stalls, or garbage bins. Lack of sanitation in bathing, toilets and safe drinking water also contributes to poor health. Open air bathing of such children is in fact a very common sight in Guwahati. They have to put their ked bodies on display for a very long time before, during and after bathing. As a result, they develop hardly any sense of modesty. Most of them use the roadside or railway line for their toilet. They use water from municipality pipes and water taps. They also lack access to medical care. They have much higher instances of HIV-infection due to lack of awareness and supervision on the streets
The problems of the street children in Guwahati are least documented. As a sub-group of the Guwahatian population, they deserve specific attention from the authorities concerned. Their vulnerability requires specific legislation and attention from the government to improve their condition. The main responsibility of assistance to the street children in Guwahati should be given to NGOs as they are better able to meet the needs of these children in varied circumstances. They should be backed fincially by the government. Censuses of the street children in Guwahati should be taken in order to help NGOs.