Coronavirus in Mumbai: No food, no money to use public toilet, lockdown takes a toll on street children

Chandni Kamble, 16, is a student of Class 10. She lives on the street with her parents - both daily wagers employed in cleaning drains before the lockdown rendered them without work.

Kamble had never cleaned drains. Last month, she joined her parents and carried the muck after her father shoved it out the gutter. She got Rs. 350 per day for the work - a sum her family needed. “I miss school. Online learning is not happening as there was no money for phone recharge after gutter work had stopped,” she says.

Sathish Pawar, 14 says his mother pawned her mangalsutra and got Rs. 4,000. The money helps the family of six get by. His father who worked with a mason is without work. He is the eldest son. They have been using the public toilet on credit. Their dues have now reached Rs. 1,000.

The BMC had in April-mid issued a circular making all public toilets free until further notice. This seems to be on paper, which most people this reporter spoke with telling that public toilets continue to charge. This, at a time when its users, mostly slum and street dwellers have no money to pay and maintaining hygiene is the keyword in the fight against Coronavirus.

Preeti Singh, 12 has just shifted to a new locality with her 24-year-old elder sister and niece. She used to live on the pavement across from a temple in Ghatkopar with10-15 other families. Here the families would get khichdi from NGOs. When a Coronavirus case emerged between them, authorities asked everyone to move. Now she has moved behind a hospital in the suburbs where her relatives live. She continues to do online learning using her cousin brother’s mobile. Her sister who worked as a domestic help in eight homes has got pay from only two. It is her sister’s savings of Rs. 10,000 that came handy though.

Near Bandra station, says Jigar Gajjar who is in touch with many street children, those as young as eight years are sleeping without food. Most are children of ragpickers and have run from home of single parents, having seen extreme poverty. All these children are school-going, but now take beatings from police and are dependent on dole-outs from NGOs.

Childline India Foundation (CIF) has been receiving calls mostly for food on their 1098 helpline, says Chitra Acharya, Head, Services at CIF. It has been working with NGOs and local corporators to address the needs, as without collaboration relief supplies will soon run out.

“The focus on migrants has taken away relief from the street families. Earlier those who used to get cooked food for the homeless, started serving migrants,” says Sukanya Poddar, Managing Trustee of Committed Communities Development Trust, which works with marginalised communities and children in Mumbai’s slums. With no income from hawking and begging, they lost access to food, she says. They had not documents to avail ration either. The little that the government gave to those without ration cards, was not sufficient. With railway stations closed, they could not access public toilets inside stations and were rudely shooed when they tried to take shelter at stations, says Poddar.

NGOs working in the field of child welfare and protection feel that cases of child labour, child marriage, child trafficking and malnourishment will see a rise.

Kreeanne Rabadi, regional director, West Region at Child Rights and You (CRY) said education has got disrupted for these marginalised lot. In addition, with ASHA workers not visiting for immumization, there is no supplementary nutrition. “The government will have to go beyond relief and get services back like immunisation and getting parents work through MNREGA,” she says.

Priti Patkar, co-founder and director of Prerana whose organisation works with child beggars says they had worked to get these children to school. Many children were first-generation learners. “We are afraid they will get back into begging,” she says. Some families, Patkar says, sold the little they had - stove, utensils to leave the street.

Roshni Nuggehalli, Executive Director, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) which works with the homeless and and is part of the Childline team in some local stations of the city, says that with no savings now, those living on the street are struggling along. “There is no dignity in what they have to endure now (depending on charity). They have been rendered completely dependent,” she says.

A more disturbing aspect is those in the field pointing that street children are no longer seen under flyovers and pavements. Says Santhosh Shinde, director and founder of Vidhayak Bharati and a child rights activist, that they have moved to the far suburbs due to fear of infection.

Adv, Shubhada Vidwans, a Child Welfare Committee (CWC) member who was earlier with the Juvenile Justice Board says she does not know where the children have disappeared. Asking social workers to report cases too, cases have not come. The CWC can only start its work once the police report cases to them. The police must be already overworked, she guesses.

Alpa Vora, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF concurs that reporting and rescue have not come to the fore as is expected. “Adolescents living on their own have an informal relation with street families. They may have merged with them at this time,” she says, . An area being overlooked is addressing the mental wellbeing of this section which has endured extreme deprivation amid fear and anxiety of infection. For this a structured program is required, she adds.

(Chandni Kamble, Sathish Pawar, Preeti Singh and Jigar Gajjar are names changed to protect identity. Their locations are also changed)

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