KOLKATA/CALCUTTA — “We get around 200 calls a day,” says Ranita Nandi, a counsellor working at the Hamara Ghair (‘Our House’), a sort of way-station for kids who have fled harsh home or working lives in Kolkata and elsewhere in West Bengal or farther away in neighbouring states in northeast India.
In some of India’s poorer rural communities, children leave school early, sent to work on farms or elsewhere. Ranita’s organisation, the Child In Need Institute (CINI), handles some of the calls to the childline set up for children who want help. Some end up staying at the Hamara Ghair for a short time.
The line rings several times in a few minutes, while Ranita explains how the facility works. In Kolkata alone, the line received 168,139 calls in the March 2011-April 2012 period – though of those ‘only’ 24,205 ended up as actual conversations.
“Sadly we get a lot of crank calls,” says Ranita, pointing out statistics showing 43,664 calls listed as ‘Crank/Fun/Abusive’.
At Hamara Ghair, the facility, which is supported by Irish NGO GOAL, in collaboration with CINI and West Bengal local authorities, can accommodate 25 boys at a time, who usually stay at the centre for around 2-3 weeks.
“Each child gets 8 to 9 sessions (of counselling) before hopefully being restored to their family,” says Ranita. “They stay around 15 -20 days here,”
Part of the reason some children end up spending time at Hamara Ghair is a mixture of poverty and ill-treatment of children.
“Child labour is an issue here in northeast India,” says Ms Ranita’s colleague Animesh. “Most of the cases come from Bihar,” he adds, referring to a nearby state in northeast India.
GOAL India country director, Corkman John Wain, says such facilities are vital in this part of India. “Gandhi said ‘poverty is the worst form of violence’ and indeed poverty is the primary reason for a continuance of child labour in these states as children are obliged to supplement meagre family incomes,” he says.
India is Asia’s third biggest economy after China and Japan, and two decades of around 8% per annum growth has lifted tens, perhaps hundreds of millions, out of poverty.
India has established itself as a global IT hub and Indian multinationals are growing their worldwide presence – India’s Tata Motors bough Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008, for example. India’s middle class, roughly-defined, numbers around 300 million people, more or less the population of the United States.
But the country’s caste system and continuing problems with corruption – not to mention the awesome challenge faced by the government in boosting living standards for 1.2 billion people – mean that hundreds of millions more live in grinding poverty.
India’s poor – those living on a couple of euros a day or less – are estimated to number around 800 million by the World Bank. That’s the population of the US and the European Union combined.
Upstairs around 20 of the boys, aged between 11 and 18, play karam, a sort-of mix of pool, air-hockey and tiddlywinks, contested on a yard-square wooden board by two opponents trying to flick inch-wide discs into corner pockets, using a larger disc as a proxy cue-ball.
One of the group watching and cheering is Minarun Burman, age 11. He says he ran away after his father beat him for giving a customer too much food at their family restaurant in Cooch Bihar, a day’s journey from Kolkata.
“He paid 10 rupees,” says Minarun, “but my dad said I gave him more than he paid for and that it is bad for business.” After getting a couple of hard slaps from his father, he fumed, he says, and then made for nearest railway station and jumped on a train, intending to go to his aunt’s house a couple of hours away.
Not long into the journey, however, He fell asleep, not waking until the train arrived in Kolkata, India’s vast third city, a population of around 14 million people: a hot, humid, traffic-dinned metropolis where opulent new wealth sits behind gated communities while millions of poor live in filthy slums with no clean water or toilets.
“I got angry and ran away,” recounts Minarun, defiance mixed with embarrassment. He was referred to CINI by social workers who keep an eye on the Kolkata train station – a magnet for the city’s homeless children who try to shelter there.
“I didn’t want to come to Kolkata and will go back in a few days to home,” he says. His story is something like a Bengali version of Huckleberry Finn, and, similar to the eponymous hero of the Mark Twain novel, counsellor Ranita sighs that “he can be a handful.”
Sitting beside Minarun is Raja Sheikh, also 11, and once the two lads let off from punching and play-fighting, Raja tells his story. His family have little money, and whatever they pull together is soon squandered by all accounts.
“Mother died 2 months ago,” he says, eyes down, “and my father drinks a lot, that’s why I have to work more he says.”
Work more? At 11, Raja should not be working at all. He says he never went to school, however.“My dad sells lottery tickets, and makes me do the same,” he says.
From Jharkhand, another state in northeast India and about a day’s road journey from Kolkata, Raja was sent to the big city by his father who told him he could sell more tickets there than in the countryside, and hence could make more booze money for his Dad. In a similar story to Minarun’s, social workers spotted a lone boy near to the train station, trying to sell lottery tickets.
His is a sad story, but there’s a happier twist. Ranita intervenes: “we traced his grandmother recently,” she says. “She wants to send him to school, so we are arranging to have Raja stay with her.”
* boys names altered to protect identities
** Roughneen was in India earlier in JuneShow