As the global pandemic continues, it's just been announced that India's lockdown has been extended. What is the impact of this on street children, some of the most economically vulnerable?
Those who discovered Salaam Baalak Trust through the City Walk programme will be aware that New Delhi Railway station - home to the first of SBT's contact points - is an unofficial hub for the city's street children. This is often the arrival point into Delhi for those who flee abuse or poverty in rural states, but also a place they subsequently call home; a base for scouring for plastic to recycle, for begging, pickpocketing, or sourcing food. With the country, like many across the globe, in lockdown, the station is closed. Without the commuters, without the tourists, the meagre existence of these children is threathened even further.
"There are no people on the roads, there is no garbage to ruffle through, there are no plastic drinking water bottles to look for and sell, there are no restaurants open to appeal to customers to give us a bit. What do we do? Where do we go? What do we eat or for that matter drink! Why are those people who we do spot wearing masks? Why are so many like us - but with parents - rushing to go back to their villages?"
For children who live with their parents on the capital's streets, things have also just become much tougher. For these parents who scrape the smallest of wages from scant, unskilled work - barely enough to feed their family in usual circumstances - the economy locking down has kicked them further down the poverty chasm. Daily-wage labourers, with no social support, have been forced to leave the cities in their tens of thousands, many walking hundreds of miles back to their villages in what is suggested to be the biggest involuntary movement of people since the partition.
Add this to the addiction, illiteracy, ill health and homelessness already prevelant, and it means thousands of children are living in brutal poverty on the streets of Delhi alone. The BBC reported this week that the Childline India Foundation has received a 50% increase in calls from children since the start of the Coronavirus crisis. Salaam Baalak Trust runs the central Delhi district Childline telephone helplines, handling more calls than any other zone and working 24/7 responding to calls. The team arranges for the child's immediate needs, ranging from emotional support to medical care, shelter and protection, before linking them to one of their shelter homes or to the Child Welfare Commitee to ensure their future safety.
Elsewhere, SBT's Contact Points continue to provide vital food, education and healthcare to the increasing number of street-living children. Mirroring what many of us are witnessing outside our supermarkets here in the UK, on the usually overcrowded streets of the city SBT staff are painting white circles on the ground to space the children out. But instead of waiting for the supermarket, this is to ensure the children eat, study and exercise whilst observing social distancing rules. Meanwhile, the outreach team educate the children on hygeine and handwashing, whilst also providing sanitisation packs and nutrition supplements.
Against a backdrop of many staff in isolation, far fewer volunteers than usual and an increased number of vulnerable young people, Salaam Baalak Trust continues to protect more than 9,000 children annually.
Friends of Salaam Balaak Trust was set up 10 years ago with the aim of raising funds for, and awareness of, Salaam Baalak Trust. Each year has seemed full of challenges but none more so immediate than now. If you're able to help by donating, or by sharing this article/email to your network, you can help us continue to provide this vital lifeline. Thank you. April 2020