Finding spaces for street children in regular schools is the best way of providing them a humane and inclusive schooling.

It was in the early decades of the 20th century that the colonial government in India first accepted the legal responsibility to look after children without responsible adult protection, including street children. Since then, even in six decades of democratic freedom, in practice most governments have fulfilled this approach mainly by virtually incarcerating large numbers of these children in custodial, jail-like State-run institutions. Children are not just locked up but what I describe as ‘locked away' in these cold, loveless institutions for the entire duration of their childhood. When the child grows into adulthood — and sometimes earlier, at the age of 14 years — the child is suddenly discharged without support, guidance or care into the impersonal adult world, to fend for himself or herself. This is sadly the approach of several private and religious charities as well.

In these institutions, segregated from the outside world, children are usually housed in large dormitories, with stern and disciplining staff who rarely build loving and nurturing bonds with these children. Children report sexual and physical abuse, and a sense of profoundly unloved loneliness. Street children whom we work with describe these as chillar jails, chillar meaning small change, and describe entire childhoods of running away from these institutions, only to be caught and locked up once again. Street children, more than others, long for freedom of choice and agency, and these homes rob these from them.

Alternate view

In stout opposition to the custodial care approach, many NGOs developed a variety of street-based outreach programmes. They believe that children and youth have the right to choose whether or not they wish to stay and remain on the streets; and should continue to retain their independent agency and economic independence, which they have fought for at a young age, and which they value highly. They have a sense of belonging to the streets, and find within it emotional and material satisfaction. According to this view, street life is a conscious choice of those children who find it as a better alternative to the betrayal of abusive relatives or parents. It is also better than abusive State custodial homes. This choice of children should be respected. We should not impose our own beliefs regarding their need for adult protection, if it violates a child's own aspirations.

They strongly believe the child on the streets has acquired a certain set of skills and abilities, which harsh street life has taught him. They live life on their own terms. They negotiate with adults around them to earn a living for themselves and may also take care of their siblings and families. These basic survival skills should not be taken away from these children, but instead these should constitute the base of working further with these children. On the foundations of what they have themselves learnt on the streets, what should be provided to the children is skill-based training, to help them take up vocations in the course of time. Innovative street-based approaches include drop-in shelters, contact centres, night shelters, evening classes, play activities in public parks, de-addiction and health services etc.

Although it avoids the abuses of custodial care, the biggest disadvantage of this approach is that it accepts that children will continue to work at an age when they should be in schools. While they get support from street-based approaches, the non-formal education programmes may provide more chances of being literate that being educated. They have limited options for careers, except in some low-end options like rag-picking and unskilled labour, or a career in crime, with limited chances for higher education. After the passage of the Right to Education Act, an approach that supports the child being out of school is, in our opinion, no more a legally tenable option.

When children are required to take decisions like adults, what they miss is responsible and caring adult protection. Children start handling money at an age when they are not capable of choosing which option is better for them. There are high chances of substance abuse among children. They are free to buy drugs on the streets. The street environment is stressful, dangerous and highly unhygienic. They also are denied access to nutritious food, and health-care services. They grow up with many ailments, mental health problems born out of abuse and neglect, and often drug dependence. There is insufficient research, but we find a large number of such children die very early. We talk often of ‘missing girls and women' in India. We believe that there are also ‘missing street children and youth'.

The third set of approaches — to which I subscribe — attempts to secure the rights of the most vulnerable urban child — those who are forced to make the streets and railway platforms their home, and who earn by picking rags, begging or other street-based work — by extending to these children voluntary comprehensive care in open residential homes. It believes that a child's rights to protection, education, food, health-care and recreation must be upheld, but in ways that do not take away the freedom of choice of the child, in ways State custodial institutions do.

The main strategies of this approach are reaching out to the street child guaranteeing comprehensive, long-term care to the child, and her rights to protection, love, food, health-care, recreation and education, in voluntary, open, non-custodial homes. These are guaranteed to the child with no conditionalities, with love but no sense of charity, and for as long as the child needs these, as one would ensure for one's own child. We learn from the pioneering work running such homes by Sister Cyril, the Don Bosco brotherhood, and the magnificent service for over 50 years in Snehalaya, Mumbai, which provides family-like care in smaller units of 20 children each, supported by foster parents. In Delhi and Hyderabad, we have attempted to scale up the Rainbow and Don Bosco models, by working closely with state governments.

Healing potential

The best approach, and one that indeed has the potential of enabling us to reach every street child, is to share spaces in existing schools, that are vacant maybe 16 hours, and these are the very hours in which a street child is most vulnerable. This is the most economical model. The same building needs only small additions for toilets, bathing places and a kitchen. It also leads to integration, dignity and the learning hands-on of egalitarian compassion and pluralism.

What has come to be celebrated as the Rainbow School approach began when, several years ago, a street girl, barely four-years-old, was raped outside the gates of an elite girls' school, Loretto Convent, Sealdah, in Kolkata. The Principal of this English Medium School, Sister Cyril Mooney, was deeply troubled. She resolved to open up the doors of her school to these children, and she fought opposition by parents and school managements, to develop one of the finest models of inclusive and humane schooling in India. The children enjoy the benefits of being inside a regular school with all the activities, the interaction with the more privileged peer group of the regular school, the rough and tumble of normal school life and the friendly interaction with other children of various backgrounds, creeds and castes. This positive environment enables each child — the most privileged and the most disadvantaged — to grow together and respect and learn from each other. In the classrooms of such a school, do we see the realisation of a new humane egalitarian India?