In a lane near Colaba market, Anita sleeps on the pavement with her son, two daughters, and her brother’s two children. Her husband is a daily wage labourer who earns Rs 200 every day. When I asked her how she manages to feed so many children with such meager earnings, instead of explaining the financial aspect, she gave me a sense of logistics. She said, ‘Kabhi ghar pe khana bana leti hoon, kabhi bahar kha lete hai bachche.’ (sometimes I cook at home, and at other times, these kids eat out). Unfortunately, what she calls ghar is a pavement, a footpath that belongs to the public, which they have to vacate in the morning every single day.
However, for Anita’s children, and thousands of kids across India, streets are the only homes they have ever known. We see these kids at traffic signals begging for alms, knocking at our cab windows asking for food, or trying to sell something, but we seldom stop to talk to them or wonder how they sustain themselves. A night drive through any street of your city will answer the questions of where and how they live, but what they generally eat is something of a mystery, that we, who sit inside our AC cabs and stare intently at our phone screens when they come begging, might not know and unfortunately, may not even care. However, despite our abject apathy as a society towards these street children, they survive and surprisingly most of them don’t die of hunger.
“From a very young age, a street child learns how to survive and earn money to feed himself, ” said Harsh Mander, Director of Centre for Equity Studies and a special commissioner to the supreme court of India in the right to food case.
“Unlike rural children, street children in India do not face hunger. They are typically not food deprived. But, they do suffer from high levels of malnutrition. One reason is obviously the content of the food that they buy off the street, which is very poor. However, more importantly, their body cannot absorb all the nutrition they eat,” He added.
Many of these street children are also addicts, who tend to take soft drugs, which is also terrible from the nutrition point of view. Therefore, several street kids suffer from a chronic form of malnutrition that leads to stunting, Mander said. “Their bodies adjust to having lesser nutrition than that which is required. So, their bodies adjust by stunting. When you look at street children they look obviously malnourished, but also smaller than their age,” he added.
According to an Action Aid and TISS study (2013) on Mumbai street children, around 25 percent of the children in the sample survey reported skipping at least one meal a day. Having no money for food was the most cited reason for skipping meals. (For more details on sample survey read here.)
According to a Save The Children survey called Life On The Street, that studied street children in five Indian cities, Lucknow, Mughalsarai, Hyderabad, Patna and Kolkata-Howrah, ‘most children (55 percent) eat (and probably cook) at home. Contrary to the prevalent assumption, many children (27 percent) buy food for their consumption and do not depend on charity or begging. [The percentage mentioned here is based on the studied sample group of the survey, you can read more about it here]
At a traffic signal near Crawford market, Mumbai, I met *Alam yesterday. I call him Alam because he refused to tell me his real name. When I explained that I am writing an article on children like him and what they eat he looked at me suspiciously and said, “Aap log kuch kuch likh dete ho aur phir BMC wale hame pareshan karte hai.’ ( You guys write about us, and the BMC people give us a hard time) Alam, like most street children, is a squatter, who is terrified of being chased away from the corner of the street, where he sleeps at night.
However, after a five star, he warmed up to me and started sharing his food stories. When I asked him what he generally eats for lunch, he said vada pao. He likes to munch on kurkure too, he confessed; he said because it is Ramzan if he makes a few extra bucks he heads to Mohammed Ali Road to eat ‘sahi khana’ (decent food).
While a meal cooked by parents is just the basic daal- chawal, or roti-sabzi, they often tend to eat junk food. As a member of a Salaam Balaak Trust pointed out, like most kids, street children too, enjoy eating junk food. ” They mostly buy chatpata snacks off the street,” she said. NGOs like Salaam Balaak Trust, and Rainbow Foundation have been working with street children and trying to elevate their living conditions for years.
Street Children, unlike slum children or other kids who live in urban poverty, are the most vulnerable lot. Because they are not listed in any national surveys, they are often referred to as ‘hidden children’ and are always at a high risk of human trafficking, abuse or exploitations by street gangs. While slum kids who go to public schools have access to midday meals, and their parents often have ration cards that allow them to buy food at a subsidized rate; the street children do not have any such support system.
Strangely, very little research has been done on them. Apart from an Action Aid report (2013), Save The Children surveys, and the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) there is hardly any data available on street children. Even these reports give a cursory glance at what the street children may eat, what is their nutrition intake, and how it affects their health, etc.
Talking about the lack of data, Mander said, “What we count and we don’t count is not an accidental happening.”
“You will not find much data on street children, homeless people, manual scavenging, lynching, starvation deaths and many such things. It is not by chance that these things are not counted, and data is not available. It is a process of making them invisible,” he added.
Street children simply don’t exist for government and public policy. The government has juvenile shelters for the care and protection of these children, where few street children are often picked up and taken, said Mander. However, they provide shelter to very small numbers.
“These shelters are also terrible for children. The idea that you have to lock up a child to provide care and protection is flawed in itself. But, that is how government homes run,” he added.
On the other hand, few NGOs like Salaam Balaak Trust, provide a better place for these children and take care of their malnourishment.
“In our daycare we work towards the health of malnourished kids. We talk to the parents and get them involved,” said a member of Salaam Balaak Trust.
The trust feeds almost 50 children (on an average) in their daycare daily and about 180 kids stay in their shelter. “We give them nutritious food at both the places and take good care of them. Our shelters are open 24*7, so if a child does not wish to stay, he can leave anytime he wants. But, the fact that they stay tell us that they are well taken care of,” she added.
There has been no concrete effort by the government to provide food for these children. In fact, most of them don’t even have access to clean drinking water, which leads to a lot of health problems, according to the aforementioned research by Save The Children.
Most of these children have low immunity for the lack of nutrition and often suffer from chronic cold. Apart from that, they have stomach problems and skin diseases for living in unhealthy conditions.
Reetika Khera, social scientist (Professor at IIM Ahmedabad) said that in the proposal for the Food Security Act 2013, it was suggested to build community kitchens like Amma’s canteen in Chennai and Indira Canteen in Karnataka, which would have been a great intervention by the government.
“These kitchens would have helped malnourished street children, by providing them nutritious food at a very affordable price,” said Khera. However, it was not included in the Food Security Act.
While the central government continues to ignore such excellent suggestions, state governments are taking few steps in setting up these kitchens that would help the marginalized homeless community. Amma’s canteen, a Tamil Nadu government initiative has been feeding about 3.5 lakh people each day, many of whom are street children. Likewise, community kitchens in Hyderabad reported serves meals for Rs 5 and feeds more than 12 lakh people daily.
Khera also suggested that another way to provide nutritious meals to street children is to instruct Anganwadi workers to feed them. If anganwadi gets involved, then street children will have easy access to food.
Talking about the lack of policies by the government for street children, Khera said, ” Just because their (street children) numbers are small that does not mean they don’t count in policy.”
“More than numbers, it is the levels of vulnerability that should be taken into account when policies are being framed. But, unfortunately, in our democracy, the more disadvantaged are less vocal, so it is less likely that they are heard or their problems addressed. In that sense, the neglect of street children is not surprising because they are small children and they hardly voice their issues,” she added.
According to NFHS-4 report, approximately 35.7% children are underweight and 38.4% are stunted under five years of age. One-third of the world’s population of stunted preschoolers are in India. A high number of these may be street kids, who do not have parents to take care of them, or their families have no money to take necessary actions.
On world nutrition day, pause for a minute at the traffic signal and take a good hard look at the child begging, and think what you can do for them. Giving a coin may reduce your guilt, but that’s not the best way to provide for them.