Dispatches: Slumdog Children of Mumbai

The Amnesty children's human rights network have always beeninterest in fighting for the human rights of vulnerable streetchildren.  Our children's rights advisor, David Maidment, founded The Railway Children, a charity that is becoming more and more visible since the release of the extraordinary flim Slumdog Millionaire – the 'feelgood film of the decade', despite it's often dark and heavy subject matter.

Ihave been fortunate to learn about the work of The Railway Childrenfirst hand from David.  They have done very detailed and sensitiveresearch on everything from why children run away, to how long it takesfor them to 'bed in' on the streets, to what jobs they'll take ifoffered.  Their mission is to 'stop a runaway child becoming a streetchild'.  The actions they take are all about 'getting to street kidsbefore the streets get to them'.  I was thrilled to hear that they'rework in Mumbai would be featured in a Dispatches programme on Channel 4in the bleakest of weeks in late January. 

I have beenpretty impressed by Channel 4's Indian Winter.  I followed KevinMcCloud's on his two-part tour of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, atwhich architects and town planners have marvelled.  I have watchedGordon Ramsay's culinary tours from remote Nagaland in the farnorth-east to a bustling and hectic Mumbai.  I watched SecretMillionaire Seema Sharma give out cheques for £25,000 to a rag-pickerwelfare charity and handfuls of hard cash to homeless and hard upfamilies. 

Dispatches: Slumdog Children of Mumbai brought to (real) life what I'd heard from David. It followed Salaam, Deepa, and twins Hussan & Hussein during monsoon season. 

TheRailway Children is a fitting name for a charity that works to helpchildren like Salaam, who arrived at approximately age seven atVictoria Terminus, having run away from his father and stepmother.  The first days after the arrival are crucial for intervention, say the charity. It is estimated that 30unaccompanied children a week arrive at the largest of India's railwaysstations, to join the 200,000 children living rough in Mumbai. Throughout India it is thought that 11 million children live on thestreets.

This incomprehensibly large number made me think about an organisation I came across a few months ago called '11 million',headed by the children's commissioner for England that gives a voice to children in England.  It is so called sobecause in the UK, there are 11 million children.  Total.  

Salaamis a striking-looking street child of about 10 (pictured).  He has no idea howold he is, and of course has no papers to prove his age or identity. He cheerfully tells the camera about his life – how he begs at trafficlights, his delight at getting big notes when the lights change andpeople want a quick give, and his preferred 'market': 'women wearingburkhas give a lot', he says.

His fortitude, his boyish cheekand unmistakable childlike innocence is heart-warming.  Solitary shotsof him on a train however, fare-dodging from carriage to carriage toavoid the monsoon rains, reveal a different boy – without the cheekysmile, the tiny lad looks like he's aged twenty years from one frame toanother.  The narrator makes a very good point, which is reiteratedevery time we notice the scars on Salaam's face: begging here is abetter option than neglect, abuse and starvation at home.

800,000 children in India go missing every year.  They become embroiled in gang violence and suffer at the hands of drugs, and police retaliation.  Salaamtragically falls in with an abusive 20 year-old called Asif, whom hebelieve treats him 'like a brother'.  He introduces him to whitener, asolvent, on which he quickly becomes hooked.  Allegations from theother boys that Asif sexually abuses them particularly worries aRailway Children volunteer, Santosh Kautalkar (who ran away himself atage 5).  Santosh rescues Salaam from the gang and takes him to aresidential school. 

Sadly, Salaam has becomeso accustomed to the streets that he lasts four months before runningaway again.  There is hope in the figure of Santosh himself, however,who was on the streets for 17 years. His experience and compassion isclearly an invaluable asset to all of these children.

(Incidentally,one of the most blighted figures of the tale is Asif, who only has oneleg following an accident with a train.  He is almost arrested butinstead is slapped about by the police after Santosh tells them aboutthe allegations of sexual abuse.  Thestreets have turned him into a disabled, drug-addicted paedophileleader of a gang of young street children.  What a tragedy for him and any young boy that trusts him.)

What hasbeen heartening is reading the comments from people in review of theprogram.  Many want to send money directly to Santosh.  After such adocumentary, people really want to give.  I believe, in the West, withso many demands on our money and a very sophisticated developmentindustry, we can forget what giving is all about. 

Forme, after the film last night, it became very clear: it is abouthelping organisations like The Railway Children help Santosh to helpSalaam with money and time, but (perhaps most importantly)understanding and strategic intervention.  Intervetion is about action,not money.  Sure, money helps, but children's rights (to safety,protection, shelter, food) is at the centre of what organisations likeThe Railway Children do.  They don't simply feed them once a week -they train police officers on child protection and lobby government onkey policy issues.

Governments have toprovide, and police have a duty to protect the youngest in society, ifthey are dirt poor and homeless or not.  And we have a duty not just tosend money but to ask governments to reallocate budgets away from warand dodgy investments and towards taking care of their children.

Many comments on the Channel 4 documentary website have expressed a desire to financially help the family of young Deepa, who sells roses at the traffic lights byan expensive Mumbai shopping centre.  The 7 year-old works from 5am buying and selling flowers, sometimes until midnight. 

Deepalives with her grandmother and brothers in a slum next to a dump, andis one of the main breadwinners and carers of their broken family.  Hermotherabandoned them after their father died. In the course of thedocumentary the estranged mother delivers another 1 year-old boy forDeepa to care for in her grandmother's house.  Seeing a 7 year-oldcarrying around a child barely smaller than herself on her hip with onehand, washing and feeding him, is just so strange and so sad. 

Deepais also a beautiful child with great strength, a big smile, andwise-beyond-her-years conversation.  The family situation is one of utterhardship – emotional as well as financial.  Deepa clutches andkisses a picture of her father in a frame, telling us how much sheloved him.  She says in a bubbly manner customary for a bright 7year-old: 'I loved him so much.  I used to pamperhim, and bring him drink.And one day he died of it.'  I do hope someone has told her that herfather drinking himself to death was not her fault.  Her mother hascertainly not supported her through it.

Deepaworks hard to bring home food.  There is nothing else she can do.  Shecan't just go to school and watch her brothers die of starvation.  NGOsestimate that 100 million children in India are engaged in paid work. So the execution of 'the child's right to education' is actually not assimple as opening schools and waiting for the children to come floodingin. 

Childrenfrom impoverished families are deeply embroiled in an economic slaverythat is perpetrated by not one person, but by all of us.  It is not theparents that should be ashamed, but the massive inequality that makes'rag-picking' an actual job, and one that children under 10 are more than qualified to do. 

Welearn about twins Hussain and Hussan, aged 11, too.  They have foregoneschool to work as rag-pickers, collecting scrap metal and plasticbottles to sell so they can earn moneyto eat. They too live in a slum, with their relatives, and their fatheris an alcoholic who beats them. They say 'he's nice when he's sober,'but that he drinks from morning to night.

Thetwins dropped out of school, promising to go back at Ramadan.  Thefestival arrived, but they had already been away too long, enjoyingtheir freedom to roam the streets, and earn and eat independently.  'Weare emperors of the night!'says Hussan.  It reminds you that most children want to be outside ofauthority; that their behaviour is just so normal.  Would you havediligently gone to school every day if you weren't forced to by yourparents or members of your community? 

Themost distressing thing about watching the twins was that they didn'twant to think about their futures.  One of the boys says 'I getstressed when I think of that, so I don't'.  They have lost any hopethey had for a different life; they're not even kidding themselves that'it'll be fine'.  They are 11! My big worry about these boys is thatthey are already expressing a desire to 'forget', or 'not think' aboutdifficult problems like the future.  This is not their fault – whywould you if life has always been so bleak?  And with great sadness Ithink of how they might manage the bleakness.  I wonder how long beforethey start drinking themselves.

There are so many conclusions todraw here, about living rough, drug abuse, poverty, exploitation,police harassment, addiction, health, child labour.  But one thing isfor certain: the fundamental rights of the child are being abused, andfrom here it seems there is one common denominator – poverty.

Please do what you can to support The Railway Children (it can be as easy as donating your old printer cartridges), and don't forget to join Amnesty's Demand Dignity campaign.  Both are currently working on the rights of street and slum dwellers like Salaam, Deepa and Hassan & Hussein.

Dispatcheshas done a wonderful job of producing an informative documentary.  Ihope there will be many more like it.  We need shows like this in theWest to wrench us out of our pathetic recession self-pity.  To remindcompanies investing in the world's fastest growing economy who's headswe step on as we climb to the top.  To use our vote to encourage worldleaders to put issues like this at the top of the roster. 

Perhapsthat's why I find Slumdog Millionaire so 'feelgood' – it feels good tofinally see stories about Salaam being told.  And it feels good to see one with a happy ending. 

All the best,

Helle :)



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