05 Mar Inspiring India
In vivid colour as every aspect of life is lived on the street
The Taj Mahal took twenty years to build over four hundred years ago and while the Salaam Baalak Trust that runs shelters and programs for homeless children has only been running for twenty-five, its legacy will have an impact for many years to come.
The centre of Delhi is home to modern luxury hotels that sit alongside buildings from the British Raj, and forts from the Mughal Empire encircle mosques and temples, just a rickshaw ride away from foreign embassies and universities. But its outside on the streets that you can see, smell and hear where many of the city’s inhabitants live. Its no surprise that as the second largest city in the world with a population of twenty-two million, overcrowding and homelessness is such an issue and that the pavements and roads serve as the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom for many.
Its a multi-cultural population and with such a collision of cultures, comes the colourful mix of many religious festivals although the single most celebrated aspect of many people’s lives is their passion for Bollywood, from the copies of DVDs sold on street corners to the kids who run away from home to be in them, or those who save every rupee they have until Friday when the new films come out.
Of the 200,000 street kids in Delhi, approximately 5% just get lost in the vast urban sprawl, many when visiting with their family and they simply can’t find their way home. For the vast majority though its the only alternative to a life that is abusive or with parents who can’t afford to feed them. For those who find their way to one of the five contact points that filters the kids through to a shelter run but the Salaam Baalak Trust, its a lifeline that saves them from destitution and crime. The guide who leads us through streets and alleyways of Paharganj was a former street kid who rehabilitated thanks to the care and education provided him through the trust. This area around the Delhi railway station was once his home and is still inhabited by thousands of homeless kids that we see amongst the piles of rubbish, faeces and dead animals that we pass on the way.
Stray dogs roam everywhere and only exaggerate the appalling conditions, lack of sanitation and poor air quality, the pollution now far worse than Beijing. The railway station is where many of the kids eat, work and sleep, on rooftops, stairwells or any place that offers shelter from the suffocating heat of summer and the monsoonal rains of July and August. Our guide was plucked from these streets twelve years ago when he was five; the victim of abuse he ran away and was one of the lucky ones, picked up by a constable and taken to the shelter. Today he is studying business management and tells us he can’t wait to finish so that he can be his own boss.
Other success stories include the rescued street boys Amit, Pawan, Shamsul and Vicky Roy, now a talented photographer with a growing reputation, and as we climb the stairs to the shelter off an alleyway not far from the station, its easy to see why. There’s an optimism at the centre that’s staffed by overseas volunteers as well as twenty permanent staff. A modest size room that is a classroom during the day becomes a communal area at night for the boys to roll out their mats and sleep. The walls have hand-drawn pictures of people and slogans, a map of the world with animals from each country and a red flag for where the visitors and workers come from. The boys clothes are mostly worn and dirty and many of them are still smudged with dirt but its not what you notice first; its the shy smiles and the wide-open grins and then as they become more comfortable with us, their excitement. Most of them are as young as five and six and they want us to write our names in their small paper booklets and draw a picture of the flag of our country, and then they do the same for us. Its clear to see how important their sense of belonging is to them and that’s what Salaam Balaak provides; a place where they belong.
Once I’ve scrawled the lines and stars of my flag in pencil, there are hands clutching at mine, the boys eager to be swung around, picked up and danced with, and we spend the next few minutes spinning in dizzying circles until I have to stop. Then its time for us to leave the shelter and finish the tour but its with more optimism than it had begun; its good to know that amongst the chaos and hopelessness at least a handful of boys are getting a chance, and for now they are also getting to spend some of their time just being kids.