In a country with high levels of infant and child mortality, low levels of literacy, and with 50% of the population in some states living below the poverty line, it perhaps comes as no surprise that there are thousands of NGO's (non-governmental organisations: non-profits or charities as we more commonly refer to them in the UK) in the capital alone. Over the coming months we're outlining some of the unique things about Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) and highlighting what sets us apart from other, seemingly similar, charities.
For the second part of our 'mini-series' we are focussing on the two threads that have run in parallel from Salaam Baalak Trust's beginnings over 30 years ago.
The first: working immediately and directly with street children, as close as physically possible to where runaway children arrive (at New Delhi railway station for example), or where children sleep and work with their families on the streets. The growth of the operation from one Contact Point (day care centre) to 14 contact points and seven residential care homes is testament to the strength of this.
The second: having ambitions to achieve excellence. In some ways these aims might seem contradictory. To create an environment from which ‘high-flyers’ would graduate, it would be easier to work with a small number of children and devote much more to each one in terms of resources, surely?
But in effect, alongside the core programmes of food, healthcare, counselling and shelter - which are available equally to all children - SBT provides additional options to those who have the aptitude to excel in a certain area. This can range from lessons in the performing arts and courses in photography to mentoring and sports coaching. And from this combination of the scale at which it works (reaching out to over 8,000 children a year) and the aspiration to excellence, have emerged some of its ‘star’ graduates: choreographers, dancers, fashion designers, aeronautical engineers, squash players, karate teachers and photographers.
This continues to the current day, notably in the academic sphere. When children present with exceptional aptitude or skill they can be enrol in schools that maximise their talents * with some going on to further education. SBT differs in a way that aims to see children and young adults thriving, not just surviving.
While excellence remains the second thread of the vision, there are a number of pressures and challenges facing SBT which make it increasingly difficult to obtain... When SBT started over 30 years ago, there was no government involvement at all: no legal framework, and no officials with the ability or responsibility to intervene. Essentially, the state had no idea what to do with street children. This obviously needed to change, especially in the parts of India where NGOs were not prevalent. But, at that time the decision for the welfare of the children SBT worked with was made by their social workers, which often sped up the process and allowed for a tailored, child-centred approach. Things are quite different now. In 2000 the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act created two sets of authorities across the country: one for children ‘in conflict with the law’, and Child Welfare Committees (CWC) for children ‘in need of care and protection’. It is now the CWC members – not organisations like SBT – who decide on the future of most children under SBT’s care: essentially, to be restored to their families, or not.
The social workers who find new runaway children at New Delhi station – there are more than 1,000 such children a year just at GRP contact point – will ‘present’ the child to the CWC within a couple of hours, who usually refer them straight to a shelter home, at least temporarily. So, SBT does the outreach and the research to find out a child’s story; provides the food and shelter and medicine, gives the counselling and education – but does not have the final say on what happens next.
The law assumes that the best place for all children is with their families and that children who are not originally from Delhi should, in the first instance, be sent back to their home state. However, experience has shown SBT that these are not always the best solution for the safety and welfare of a child. The knock of effect of these new rules has challenged the model SBT created, where most of the shelter homes are designed for longer-stay to be enrolled in school and stay until they are 18. The high turnover created by the CWC’s preference to send children back out of Delhi has led to a constantly shifting group of short-stay children in the homes. As well as being disruptive to the long-stay children, a large amount of staff time is diverted to the paperwork involved.
There are no easy choices here: a collaborative and sustained effort between NGOs and the authorities is needed to address some of the grassroots issues of why so many children leave, or are unable to live at, their homes. If all the children who ran away to Delhi were to stay, there would be nowhere near enough space for them.
Meanwhile, the two threads of SBT working directly with street children and having ambitions for them to achieve excellence will continue to run in parallel as the charity enters its fourth decade - providing a lifeline to some of India's most vulverable children.
If you missed 'What makes SBT different from other charities; part one' you can read it here.