We have dreams too
Shanmuga Subramaniam writes about an initiative for the rehabilitation of street children in Mumbai.
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Drug addiction has become a large phenomenon in India in the past two decades affecting all segments of society. The cheap availability of drugs has led to an increase in their use. Drugs, HIV, crime, associated violence and poverty shape the dangerous and vulnerable position of Mumbai's estimated 1,00,000 runaway and street children.

SUPPORT, Society for Undertaking Poor People's Onus for Rehabilitation, is a young go-getting, no-nonsense voluntary organization fighting a daily battle on the streets to prevent Drug Abuse and AIDS. It began its work in 1985, creating awareness on drug abuse and AIDS with children of the higher strata of society. In 1989, SUPPORT moved its focus to the most vulnerable of our children, those who live on the streets, and a project was initiated at Victoria Terminus Station covering 300 street addicts.

From 1993, SUPPORT has expanded it's activities to Grant Road, Kamathipura, Dadar, Matunga and Mahim areas covering a wider range of street population including sex workers and eunuchs. A rehabilitation center has been opened for child addicts below 16.

SUPPORT's strategy is to work the most vulnerable among the street populace, the addicts, the runaway kids, the women, the youth and the pavement families. It works to organize them and give them a sense of identity and social belonging, provide them with medical help, detoxification, counselling, healthy recreation, education and vocational training in order to rehabilitate them and make them self-reliant.

SUPPORT's vision is working towards a drug free society where all children have access to education, recreation and a healthy environment.

SUPPORT's mission is to reduce the amount of drug abuse and HIV incidence among streetchildren, homeless youth, commercial sex workers and pavement families.

The SUPPORT center itself is one open concrete room, resembling a small garage, under the Dadar flyover. Some kids were sitting around chatting and few more were just coming in. I started talking to the kids and just then a lady entered the room; she introduced herself as Nilima, center-in-charge and after going over some chores with other volunteers joined me for a discussion, paraphrased below. A couple of boys about 15 years old sat near us quitely observing our discussion. The rest of this article will weave between a conversational form and a narrative form.

Shanmuga: Is the address Gala No.14, under Kavi Kusum Das flyover, Dadar(west) for VOICE or SUPPORT center ?

Nilima: It is for both. The same gala address has been shared by us. VOICE center is just the adjacent one.

Shanmuga: Seems like you are both doing very similar with children. Couldn't you just work as one group ?

Nilima: Yes, there is some similarity in our work. But our focus is different. We work mainly with children who have tested as HIV positive or are drug addicts. So we have to do a lot of work in rehabilitation.

Shanmuga: What do you at this center ?

Nilima: We give the children some basic literacy to read and write in Hindi. We are also starting to impart some vocational training, which is well received by them.

Shanmuga: Couldn't you get the children to attend schools, say Municipal schools ? Are they too old for that ?

Nilima: You must try to understand. Almost all these children are still on the streets. Getting them to come to the center itself is an achievement. If we try to force anything on them, they will not show up. So everything has to be done carefully and patiently based on their felt needs.

It takes a long time for a child to feel secure with us; for her or him to come regularly to the center. So first of all the center is a secure environment for them to come and socialize. Some children are still in the process of rehabilitation from drug addiction. The children come here from all over the city. Most of the children coming here have been with us for sometime.

The real challenging work is on the streets, trying to talk to the children and socialize with them. Our day/night residential rehabilitation center in Santa Cruz is for chronic addicts and also for detoxification. In terms of education, what is important for them beyond basic alphabetization is building up of awareness about drugs, AIDS, crime on streets, etc. They also need some skills for earning a living. This is what we are focusing on.

Shanmuga: What kind of vocational training are you giving ?

Nilima: The children are interested in lots of things. We are now mainly working on welding, tailoring and screen printing. Currently, availability of funds is small. We need more funds to do this training properly.

Shanmuga: Is this center a boys-only center. I don't see any girls around.

Nilima: No, it is open for both boys and girls. But in this age group(about 14 or 15) if the girl belongs to a pavement family they usually don't send her. And girls with no family don't last too long on the streets; they are taken into brothels as soon as they show signs of maturity.

Shanmuga: Are you working with such girls also ?

Nilima: Yes, we in SUPPORT are working with commerical sex workers(CSWs) too. It's a totally different problem but we are making some progress.

Nilima couldn't give me much details about number of children and finances. She requested me to contact Sujatha Ganega, Director of SUPPORT or Tejasri, coordinator of the center. At this time one of two boys who was sitting with us left to join the other kids. Many more boys had come into the center by now and were getting busy with their notebooks.

Nilima suggested that I talk to the other boy and introduced me to him. He introduced himself as Narayan and we talked for a while.

Narayan: My name is Narayan. I am 19 years old and work with SUPPORT in this center. I was living in the streets before.

Shanmuga: Did you leave home ? When did you leave. Where is your home ?

Narayan: My 'home', to which I never went back, is in Hadgodi in Karnataka near Bangalore city. I left home when I was seven years old.

Shanmuga: Can I ask you why you left home ? Do you remember?

Narayan: Yes, I remember the day I left home very clearly. My parents was very poor and there were many problems at home because of that. I had been planning to leave home for sometime. I and a friend of mine from a neighboring village decided to run away on this day. We both just ran to the nearest railway station, got into a train and came to Bangalore. I lost touch with him after a few months.

Shanmuga: What happened after that ?

Narayan: After that I have been living in the railway station, in the streets; doing anything and everything to get food. I left Bangalore and went to Hyderabad, from there to Madras. I stayed in Madras for a long time. Then came back to Bangalore and then finally to Bombay. I've been in Bombay since then. Because of my travelling I know four languages well now.

Shanmuga: Can you write in any of them ?

Nilima: Narayan has been with us for more than a year now. But he never took interest in reading and writing. Only very recently he has expressed some interest. So we have taught him to write his name in Hindi. Narayan, why don't you show him.

Narayan quickly picked up his notebook and with great concentration wrote down his name. He took almost a minute to write it. I appreciated his neat handwriting and also showed him how using the same alphabets he can write other words like Nana,Yaar,etc. He was pleasantly surprised and noted these down. We continued our discussion.

Shanmuga: Do you think your leaving home was a right decision ? Do you regret it ?

Narayan: No, it was a totally wrong decision. I was such a small kid, I hardly knew what I was doing. But I dont know what else I could have done. All I wanted was to be free and independent, that was in my mind all the time. Only running out of my home gave that freedom to me. But I don't really regret my past. I am what I am - that's all.

Shanmuga: Did you ever start using drugs ?

Narayan: Yes. I was smoking ganja and also using brown sugar. At one time, I was heavily into it. But drug use is very common on the streets. The drug sellers have a strong-hold on our lives. They know how to get you addicted.

Shanmuga: Does the police not come to help ? Did you ever approach them ?

Narayan: The police are fully involved in this business. Without their knowledge nothing can happen.

Shanmuga: How can we stop this racket ?

Narayan: You mean drugs ? We can't stop them. They are too big and strong. We can only spread awareness like what SUPPORT is doing.

Shanmuga: Tell me something about your work with SUPPORT.

Narayan: After SUPPORT came to my life I resolved to stop using drugs. I don't take drugs anymore. I've been helping out SUPPORT in whatever work they ask me to do. I am now also getting some job training.

Nilima: Narayan is a dedicated worker. He has actually been very helpful in getting more children to attend our center. This is a kind of strategy we use - we ask rehabilitated children to talk to children who are still addicts. The children respond much better and with greater trust when one among them talks about it.

We heard some loud laughs from a gathering further inside. I joined in to see what was going on. The screen printing class had started. About 25 boys were standing in a queue to get their chance. They were making visiting cards. Each boy made about 5 cards and then joined at the back of the line to get the next chance. The instructor was very encouraging and corrected the boys gently if they made a mistake.

One of the prints they were making was visiting cards for Sujatha. I picked one for myself. I wished Narayan good luck and started to leave . Nilima thanked me for the visit and reminded me to talk to Sujatha and try to help out.

Closer to the entrance some younger children were still at work with the notebooks. It was a haphazardly seated bunch on the floor talking, laughing, helping and being helped. As I left, I reflected. A few minutes later these children would walk out of this room, into their home, the streets of Mumbai.

The market outside was in full swing; bright lights flashing from the shops; people buying fruits, flowers, T-Shirts,etc, from roadside sellers. I noticed there were many other galas like that of VOICE and SUPPORT under the flyover. Two others that struck me were Shelter Don Bosco - an open house for street children(Gala No.7) - and Upang Maitri.

Despite the fact the unplanned nature of my visit, and the fact that I had not gone prepare to do an overall assessment, what I saw on the ground was commendable. Giving the children some skill is vital in helping them to play a positive role in the mainstream society.

Shanmuga Subramanian
March 2000

Additional note from the author

>My visit to SUPPORT on Jan 6th 2000 was accidental. Rajashri Bansiwar of VOICE (Voluntary Organization in Community Enterprise) had advised me to visit VOICE's Dadar based vocational training center. At the time I encountered SUPPORT, I had no apriori knowledge of ASHA's involvement.

Long term involvement with SUPPORT is strongly recommended. SUPPORT has started relatively early(1985) in its work against drug abuse. Their accrued experience will be valuable to learn from - in dealing with the drug menace. Dialogue in this direction should be initiated with the longtime workers of SUPPORT.

A detailed survey of the galas under the Dadar flyover would be very informative. Deserving groups amongst these can be chosen for involvement.

Contact Information

United States: Ramesh Seshadri

Old BMC Office 2nd Floor,
Vakola Market, Nehru Road,
Santa Cruz (east),
Mumbai - 400 005, India.
Phone: (91-22) 616 2965, Fax: (91-22) 287 3377

Email: support-ngo@vishwa.com