YOUNG WORLD

Lost childhood

GEETA PADMANABHAN

Who cares?

Who cares?  

Selvam, Manikantan, Karthik, Lakshmi, Kasturi, Murugan... . a teacher should be calling out the names to mark attendance in Std. III. But these kids don't go to school. They learn life's lessons at the city's traffic signals, bus terminals, sub-ways, places of worship, movie halls and wherever else a crowd gathers. They are child beggars.

Catch them playing on the footpath they call home on an evening. Anjala gives you a smart salute that has had a lot of practice. Ramu is chewing paan and wears a shirt only when he goes to the cinema. Selvam is an expert on movies. Talk to them, they are wary. Your vehicle rolls to a stop at a traffic intersection. A grubby hand is stuck at your face and a pitiable voice begs for coins. What do you do? One of three things. You turn your head away, quickly throw a coin at the child or ask him to move. What you miss seeing is the face. Framed by a thatch of unwashed hair are two enormous eyes full of curiosity, sadness and longing.

Check this out the next time.

Why do children beg? Poverty is not the whole answer. Children tug at you because their parents force them to go out and earn. Because they have been abandoned. Threatened by gang leaders. Addicted to drugs (yes!). They are ill and that gets more sympathy and cash. Their parents are migrant workers. It is easy money. Time pass. The point is these children have no sense of their worth. They feel they don't count — to their parents and to the society. "Begging is an under-12 activity," says Andal Damodaran, president, ICCW. "A beggar child does not know what else he can do. He/she is not given an opportunity to progress. Earning money is his only option — and the cash is collected by parents or dadas. When a child begs, he gives up his/her right to survival, the right to develop his talent and the right to protection."

The law says all children up to the age of 14 should be in school. Under the Juvenile Justice Act it is illegal to force children to beg. Begging youngsters could be sent to the Juvenile Court/shelter.

People like Jayakumar of ICCW are trying to help. "The minute they see me, they run away," he says. "I make friends with them, go to their homes and talk to their parents. Once the parents agree, we arrange classes for them in nearby schools. After a year or so we put them in regular classes. We give them vocational training."

Meet 11-year-old Ganga of Government Middle School, off New Avadi Road, Chennai. He has an open sore on his face and has just joined the non-formal class. "I earned Rs.40 a day," he says looking at the floor. "I would keep Rs.15 and give the rest to my family." What does he do with his money? "I eat," he says, and adds, "I don't want to beg. I want to study and become a mechanic."

NGO's like ICCW, Relief Foundation and Asha Nivas work hard to put these kids in school. They organise coaching and vocational training classes. Buy uniforms and books. Give medical check-ups. Nearly 200 children are covered under this scheme. But the kids find it difficult to sit and learn. "We make learning interesting," says Tamil Selvi, their teacher. "We get the parents to promise. Still many of them go back to begging. Some do it during week-ends."

"Do not give money to children who are begging," say those who work for them. "It is the most effective way to stop child labour. When you give them cash, you encourage begging. You deny the child his rights. No child begs because he wants to. Giving may make you feel good, but it robs the child of his self-esteem."

Want to help? The minute you see a kid begging, call 1098 (24 hours) or 044-26260097 to report.