With more than 1.13 billion people, India is the second most populous country in the world. Despite the nation’s high economic growth during the past decade, widespread poverty remains one of India’s biggest problems to date. 19.3% of the population earns less than the government-specified 0.40$/day poverty threshold.
Due to factors such as increasing rural-urban migration and dire economic circumstances, India has the largest number of street children worldwide. While there are no recently published statistics, UNICEF reported that the number of street children in India was as high as 18 million in 2000. Alone in the city of Bombay, 250,000 children are believed to live in railway stations or on the streets.
Street children are subject to hunger, malnutrition, neglect, physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, violence, poverty, substance abuse and addiction, theft and police brutality. They have virtually no rights and are systematically denied access to education and adequate health care as a result of structural barriers and discrimination. Many of them have never experienced and will never know what it means to have a shelter and loving family to come home to.
Although the term street children is broad and fairly ambiguous, it tends to be used as a shorthand for children who live in poverty and are exposed to life on the streets in one way or the other. UNICEF defines “street children” as children who live on the streets alone or with their families, or children who spend most of their time on the streets to fend for themselves (but return home on a regular basis). The reasons that children end up living and working on the streets are plentiful: some come from impoverished, homeless families, others fled violent, abusive home situations, still others have homes but beg or work on the streets to contribute to the household income. Despite the fact that the dominant image of street children is that of an orphan, all alone in the world, the reality of the situation is that the majority of street children are not orphans, although many have only one parent, come from broken homes, or may have severed ties with their families. Irrespective of the exact causes and nature of their affiliations with the street, all are classified as “street children.” The collective (and growing) presence of these children in public places such as parks, railway stations, traffic intersections, and sidewalks increasingly constitutes the face of many urban centers in India.
In order to make a living, street children in India take up a broad range of occupations, including begging, rag picking, sex work, theft or petty crime, shoe shining, “coolie” work (luggage hauler), sweatshop work, mechanic work, and flower, snack, or trinket selling. Since they depend on the money they earn themselves, they rarely have the time or resources to go to school and obtain an education. The fact that they grow up illiterate inhibits their chances of finding adequately paid employment as adults and results in a vicious cycle that forces them to spend the rest of their lives on the streets.
Koli, Mme. Personal interview. 10 January 2007.
O’Kane, Claire. (2003) “Street and Working Children’s Participation in Programming for their Rights.”
Children, Youth, and Environments. Vol 13(1).