June 1, 2009

Traffic Light Children

Another street boy whom I knew and was fond of, passes away... leaving me grieved and dismayed.

I don’t know who to blame anymore.

Pradhan, a 12-year old, succumbed to injuries on 6 April 2009, after being hit by a truck at the Moti Bagh flyover in Delhi.

No child should have to die at 12. No child should have to be on the streets.

I couldn’t believe it. I wept. It couldn’t be happening again. Radhakrishna, a boy who sold newspapers at the same traffic light, passed away on 4 October 2005. His death changed my life. And even though I tried, I wasn’t able to change the lives of the street children around me.

Radhakrishna’s untimely passing away shook me deeply. In an attempt to process my grief, I wrote an article on him in the weekly newspaper - Tehelka.* In his memory, I set up a fund for the education of street children around Moti Bagh.

The short piece published by Tehelka received an overwhelming response. Strangers wrote asking how they could help. Strangers, who knew Radhakrishna, reached out to express their solidarity. Strangers around the world who didn’t know Radhakrishna but were moved by our appeal, contributed to the fund.

We managed to raise a lot of money in a very short time. Sujata Madhok, a friend in the neighbourhood, helped me find a place and a teacher, and we started a school programme for the children. But even with the money and the space, it wasn’t easy. Nothing could have prepared us for the complex challenge of doing something that apparently seemed so simple.

First it was convincing their guardians to send the children to school, and that too only twice a week. I couldn’t get more time from them. Even this was a struggle and dropped to once a week. We’d collected money for a room for the children so they didn’t have to spend harsh nights on the streets. My one condition of paying for the room was that the children would attend school.

Despite an overt concurrence, there was an underlying hesitation and probable suspicion. What would we teach them? How would we influence them? The children sold newspapers at the traffic light. Every hour away from the signal meant lost potential earnings for the adults. Even though hours often went by without the sale of one newspaper.

I had no visions of changing the children’s lives. Their deep rooted poverty and arduous family reality was something I could only dream of altering. All I wanted was to give them a short break from the monotony and harshness of street life, for them to play, draw, sing, read and write; to forget their bitter world for a few hours. For them to experience a sip of childhood that life had deprived them of. All I wanted was to make them smile for a few hours a week. And truly, the only time I saw those children smile was in school. That’s why I named the school Muskaan, which means smile in Hindi.

The first time I met Pradhan was at the traffic light. His sister Maya introduced him to me. He had just come from the village. “Kya naam hai aapka?” I asked him. He didn’t answer. “Pradhan” replied Maya, adding, “Pradhan Mantri banega, didi!” He still didn’t say anything but smiled a shy smile and then looked down, almost embarrassed. “Kyu nahin, zaroor banega Pradhan Mantri, hamara Pradhan,” I said. And he coyly looked up again and we both smiled, his light brown eyes revealing an intelligent sparkle.

Pradhan was very good looking. And naughty too. He was the most difficult to take to school. His sister, for reasons unknown to us, refused to attend. She was a strong influence on him, but still we managed to take Pradhan for a few classes. He was bright and a quick learner though he found it difficult to sit in one place for long.

Every Saturday morning, Sujata and I would go to the Moti Bagh flyover and begin the challenging task of rounding up the children from three traffic lights. Pradhan would often run or hide behind the bushes, peering out and laughing when he knew we could see him. There were days when I had to run after him, and there were days when he wouldn’t come to school.

It was all part of the game. For them. For us. The children’s guardians didn’t want all of them to be away from the traffic signal at the same time. Despite my persuasion, I couldn’t win the economics argument. Even though we gave the children food, we couldn’t add to their daily income. And paying the children to study was something we were against.

Most of the children had never held a crayon before, let alone sat on chairs and tables. A high point for them, and for us, was when they could write their names and read their bus number. Every Saturday after dropping them back to the traffic signal after class, I’d be overcome with a mixed feeling. A sadness that they had to return to their grim reality and a tinge of gratitude that at least they had a short break from it.

The girls would often sing Rajasthani wedding and festival songs. The children came from near Alwar, an area steeped in drought and a culture of child marriage. When I asked Sita if she was related to Rekha, she said, “meri nanad hai” (she’s my sister-in-law). I thought they were joking. But no, their marriages had been fixed when they were still in their cribs, and as soon as they were 14–15, they’d be married off.

The children kept going back to their villages, another major disruption in their education. Once after Pradhan returned, I asked him how his trip had been, and Maya told me, “didi, iski to shaadi ho gayee.” Pradhan, only 12, married! No, it couldn’t be true. But then this is India. Where the unreal is the real, however much one may deny it. I tried talking to their family members about this, but it made no difference. They just shrugged and said this was how it was and how it would be. They didn’t believe there was anything wrong. What could we change?

Amidst several hurdles – ill health of the children, resistance from their families, and a fluctuating class size, we somehow kept the school going. Some days were hard but Muskaan still managed to make the children smile. We learnt a little about their rough lives, but they didn’t want to talk about reality. There seemed a desire not to reveal the pain. They wanted to colour dreams on paper and play games. And that’s what we focused on.

But slowly things began to change. It became harder to bring the children to school. There were forces keeping them away. Dynamics that the children were afraid of revealing to us. But we could tell.

And then late one night, I got a call from their guardian telling me the children had been arrested. What followed was a long drama… and weeks of dealing with the police, juvenile justice centres, the Child Welfare Committee, and parents of the children. An NGO in an attempt to “rescue” the children from exploitation, had them picked up and sent to two homes – one for boys and one for girls. The children were distraught, their parents even more so. After a long process of negotiation and assurances from the parents that the children would be taken back to the village and put in school, they were released.

I lost my kids then. They disappeared. Where to, I had no idea. I missed them at the traffic light but felt relieved that they were not spending their days on the harsh streets. I prayed that they were safe and better off than they were here.

Several months passed by…and life went on…. And suddenly one day I saw a few of the children, including Pradhan, back at the traffic light. What happened? Life was too difficult in the village. Their parents were working in Delhi and needed them to be in the city. And the city’s streets were still better than the arid, waterless, foodless life back home. What could one do?

The children got back to selling all sorts of items at the traffic light – flags, flowers, balloons, toys. The police threatened them, cars often hit them. I used to meet them daily, at the traffic light, on my way home from work. They always ran up to meet me, irrespective of whether I bought anything from them or not. By the end of the day when I saw them, their faces were grimy, their energy levels waning, their smiles fragile... But Pradhan would still play games – knock on the car door and hide, and then smile his mischievous smile when he saw me peering out at him. With time, however, the innocent sparkle was gradually replaced by a look of onerous responsibility that didn't belong in a child's eyes.

School became taboo. We couldn’t even talk about it, given the heightened apprehension of the elders after the children’s “pick-up”, even though we had nothing to do with that. There had also been a long time lag, interest in studying had waned, and since only a few of the children had returned, it wasn’t feasible to restart Muskaan.

Their parents said they had no choice. They couldn’t afford for them to go to school, even if it were free. They needed them to make money. Child labour? Perhaps. Exploitation? Perhaps. Injustice? Perhaps. Stolen childhoods? Yes. A failed attempt at change? Yes.

India has the largest number of street children in the world, but there is no official data, nor do comprehensive government schemes exist for them. Most efforts are being undertaken by civil society.

I’d tried to make a small difference. I didn’t succeed. There must be other ways of doing things. But I don’t know what else to do now.

After Pradhan’s death, my children have disappeared again. I don’t know where they are. I haven’t even been able to meet Maya, his sister, to tell her how much I feel her pain.

But I still see Radhakrishna doing salaam, everyday. And I see Pradhan, hiding behind the bushes, laughing, saying “you can’t catch me!” And the truth is, I couldn’t.

My children are not my children. Whose children are they? And how many more boys and girls can we let die on the cruel streets of this megamaniacal metropolis that considers them blots in its “world class city” image?

But children don’t live on streets in “world class” cities. Children don’t die on streets in “world class” cities.

A “world class” city is one where every child has a secure home, a safe school, and a blissful childhood.

Until we get there, let’s pay attention to the children, the children of sun-streaked hair and sun-baked dreams, who live and die on the streets because enough is not being done for them.

* The article on Radhakrishna (Death of a Newspaper Boy) published in Tehelka: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main14.asp?filename=Cr102905Death_of.asp.


  1. Hi Shivani,

    I am so sorry for your loss. It's so awful and heart breaking...I wonder about the change... All I know is that you do everything in your ability to make a difference. I hope that your efforts translate to a difference. I am not in delhi, but let me know if there is any way I can help. Take care and lots of love.

  2. My dear Shivani,

    My condolences.

    Thank you for sharing such a touching, tragic and too common story. You did make a difference by enriching the lives of your two young friends, and all the other children you've helped. Grieve well, but please do not despair.

    Prayers for you and the children...


  3. S, what a beautifully written, moving, and poignant article. You have that ability of touching people's hearts with your words. Please keep writing and please keep sharing your writing with the world. You're very special. Sending you much love and strength, A.

  4. hi, i don't know you. a friend forwarded your article to me. i was deeply moved by it and wanted to let you know. what matters is that you're making an effort and reaching out. wish you the very best.