CHENNAI: We used to go to sleep at night, not knowing what the next day would hold in store for us. We wouldn’t know if we would wake up next to a stranger, and face abuse and harassment.
We lacked basic water facilities, sanitation and hygiene, and toilet facilities. It’s 2020, there are people like us still living on pavements and streets; if the public toilets are closed or defunct, there are women and children who still have to defecate in open spaces or dig pits to relieve themselves.
"For many children, opportunities are bleak and education is still a far-fetched dream. But I am one of the lucky few, who was able to dream beyond my existing grim reality,” shares Durga Lakshmi, a 22-year-old BSc Biochemistry graduate, who was taken under the wings of Karunalaya Social Service Society, an NGO working for the protection and development of street and working children in Chennai, when she was seven years old.
The organisation that turned 25 this year, despite traversing rough waters due to the pandemic, remains optimistic about its endeavours in providing a safe space and bright future for street children, respect and opportunities for the communities deprived of it.
The youngest of four siblings, when she reached class 8, Durga was forced by her family to discontinue her education due to lack of funds. But, with the timely intervention of the NGO, she was able to convince her family and carve a future for herself.
“My siblings dropped out of school when they reached class 7. I was expected to do the same. When you have to step into middle and high school, the expenses multiply. Buying basic books, bag and stationery, too, become hard and that’s why most of us drop out and start working. But, with the help of Karunalaya and the counselling they provided my family, I was able to study further. We didn’t even have electricity at home and I had to study under the street lights. Volunteers from the organisation used to visit us to conduct supplementary education classes for us in the evening. I was in awe of their patience. No one had been so kind to us before,” recalls the resident of Barracks Road, who continues to work closely with the organisation in their rehabilitation work. “There are thousands like me who need the help and I want to lend them a hand,” she adds.
“The pandemic has been tough on all of us but the families living on the streets have had to face the brunt of it, in the rawest form. While we have been helping everyone to our maximum potential, the situation has, at times, rendered even organisations like us helpless. Such has been the impact of the pandemic.
"Our focus in the past several months has, however, remained in caring for those in our shelter homes, providing rations for those on the streets, helping schoolchildren without the means to attend online classes, and providing women who undergo abuse security and legal aid,” shares Paul Sunder Singh, a criminologist and lawyer, who established Karunalaya in 1995.
Self-reliance is key
Over the years, the organisation has trained several volunteers to identify and eliminate child labour, protect and rehabilitate runaway and destitute children, child labourers in the fishing industry, street youth, and empower women in the fishing community and other street and pavement-dwelling communities.
“One of our main aims has been to make those on the streets aware and self-reliant. For instance, until about a decade ago, a majority of the population didn’t have any clue about their rights and the remedies they could avail of. They didn’t have a registered body on which they could fall back on for any grievance and redress. So, the families were encouraged to come together to form a Pavement Dwellers Rights Association (PDRA),” he shares.
The social service society, over the past decade, has not only been receiving support from the pavement and street dwellers from other areas but has also been vital in helping the families procure proper address- proof, including ration cards and voter IDs.
“We initiated the setting up of kuzhus or self-help groups among the women on Barracks Road, as a means to make the women self-sufficient. We educated the families on their Right to Information too,” he explains. Concurring, Senthil S, another resident of Barracks Road, who was enabled by Karunalaya as an adolescent to receive education, narrates the transformation he witnessed.
“It was common for people in our locality to be evicted without proper reasoning or notice. When officials and the police questioned us, people in our parents’ generation used to be petrified due to the lack of knowledge. But, when Karunalaya came into the picture, we were taught about our rights. There was no reason to be afraid and we were given the confidence to stand up for ourselves. The number of school dropouts has also reduced and those belonging to my age group and below are more aware and confident. Children’s clubs were formed to address the problems of street children and people were given a new lease of life,” says the 20-something- old, who works as a client officer at an education consultancy.
A deserving life
Looking back at his journey, he recalls how his father — a chronic alcoholic — almost pushed him to drop out of school. “It was a hard time. But Karunalaya engaged with families like ours to make our future better. Though we still live on the streets, we are in a better place. The future generations will perhaps have a life and lifestyle that they deserve.
We’ve taken the first steps to reach that dream,” he shares. The organisation has also been helping children realise their dreams and potential by providing opportunities in different fields, including arts and sports. “Our children have made it to the Street Child World Cup, a football tournament, and the Street Games, and won several accolades.
Our team which represented the country in the Street Child Cricket World Cup last year bagged the title and lifted the World Cup, after facing the England team at the Lord’s stadium. Ours is the second Indian team to lift the World Cup in Lord’s after 1983!” enthuses Paul.
With a year dotted with challenges, the NGO, Paul says, hopes to further its efforts in making their ‘extended family’ more self-reliant and work on procuring more local support and sponsorships. “We are looking forward to being a part of the Street World Cup 2022 (Football) in Qatar and are in discussions with Street Child United, the charitable organisation behind Street Child Cricket World Cup, about hosting the championship here in 2023 — in the winning team’s base,” he adds.
4,413 children benefitted from Karunalaya’s shelters, of which 236 were girls and 4,177 were boys.
3,147runaway children have been reunited with parents in as many 19 states so far.
1,254 street dwelling families with 6,270 individuals have been beneficiaries of Karunalaya.
4,981 children benefitted from supplementary education classes. Currently, 632 kids are being mentored.
554 children have gone for higher studies with Karunalaya’s help at various stages.
15,000 children (of all age groups) have been provided with educational materials.
1,412 people got help from the NGO to procure family cards, birth certificates & other documents.
361 women self-help groups were formed. The groups collectively have 7,220 members.
77 men were enrolled in deaddiction centres through Karunalaya’s efforts.
50 children and 10 adults have been abroad for events across seven countries.
3,190 families were helped — with ration, funds and other supplies — during the lockdown.