Thanks to a rehabilitation project, Delhi's street children are now city tour guides

“I would have still been on the streets, sniffing glue, if I had not been rehabilitated,” says 19-year-old Satyender, who fled from his Uttar Pradesh home and a violent father in 2005. Satyender escaped to a railway station in Delhi bearing the vagaries of street life before he was rehabilitated by the Salaam Baalak Trust.

The SBT works to rehabilitate individuals like Satyender, nurturing and integrating them into mainstream living and preparing them for a profession of their choice. Satyender works as a SBT city guide - he conducts tours of areas near the New Delhi Railway Station and Paharganj.

Witty and proud of his achievements in a charmingly endearing manner, Satyender uses his very competent English skills to share his life's narrative with the walk participants who are mostly foreign tourists. Asked how old he is, Satyender grins: “I am 19 or 20-years-old, at least I think so. When initially a counsellor asked my age, I said 13-years, after I heard another child say the same. ” Like many children who spend part of their lives on the street and have stayed outside the formal family set-up, Satyender too is unsure of his age.

He skilfully guides his group through the maze of roads near the railway station, halting now and then to indicate the SBT contact centres. Pointing to a shop in a narrow lane selling piping hot biriyani and kebab, he says: “Many street children eat at these shops. The food is cheap and ingredients are freshly prepared, not like the fancy hotel food. Maybe I will eat here when I do not have enough money.”

Bringing up the group is Shivram, a trainee city guide. Smartly attired, Shivram sports an eye-catching mobile phone on which he texts with impressive speed.

Asked how old he is, he smiles shyly and asks: “Can you guess?” Another participant wants to know where he belongs to. Shivram counters with another smile: “Can you guess?”

Initially shy, Shivram gradually opens up. He is 16 years old, also from Uttar Pradesh. Fearing a violent father, Shivram too ran away from home. He is now studying through open school and training to be a city guide.

The walk culminates at the SBT office in Paharganj where City Walk Coordinator Poonam Sharma says: “When city guides narrate their stories to the walk participants, it reduces their embarrassment since they receive respect for overcoming such stiff hurdles. It sharpens their communication skills and helps in forming contacts. One girl is also being trained to be a city guide.”

Life on the street for children presents some worrying aspects, says Poonam: “About 70 per cent of children on the street are drug addicts. The longer they stay on the street, the deeper is their dependence on drugs. It is very difficult to wean them away and there are chances of relapse.”

In another office room, Sama Jahan is encouraging her class of about 50 children to share their problems. As a child stands up to narrate his problems, the rest clap -- a sign of appreciation for speaking up.

“The applause makes the children feel special and wanted. Many feel betrayed and think negatively of their families. Some children have run away, some have got lost. We try to encourage positive memories,” says Sama. Efforts are made to reconcile the children with their families, but the children are not forced to return to their families.

Meanwhile as the tryst with the SBT ends for the day, Satyender reassures his group that they can communicate with him on Facebook. “You want to clap for me?” he grins and asks of his group. The group happily obliges.