Batul Mukhtiar, co-producer The Slumdog Children of Mumbai:
When film director Nick Read and I met Mrinalini Rao, of Railway Children on our first day of research, she said, 'The slum children will have slippers on their feet, the street kids will be barefoot.' This is not always the case, but we soon learnt to spot a child who had parents or guardians and the ones who didn't.
Most of the children living on the street live a precarious existence. They have been abandoned at birth to make their way the best they can in the world. Often unwashed, unfed, prone to sickness, witness to substance abuse and domestic violence.
Santosh Kautalkar, a runaway himself at 5, 18 years ago, who now volunteers with Railway Children, told us that a lot of the children invent their stories, having learned them from each other. But even if the details may be made up, the substance of the stories is neglect.
Lack of trust
The children learn to tell lies as a defence. One has to ask and re-ask questions several times before the answers make a coherent pattern. This is because the children do not trust any adult figure easily. They are afraid that they may be taken into custody and put in the government remand home, or be sent back to their own home. They are afraid of being trapped by dealers or pimps. They learn to rely only on their peers.
How they survive
The network of communication between the children is surprisingly strong. They learn from each other where free food is available on which day of the week, (all temples, mosques, churches are great places for free food, as feeding the poor is virtually a part of the prayer services), what the menu usually is, where they can go for a change of fresh clothes, when there will be a fair or picnic organized by some NGO for them, where they can get a free haircut, where they can spend their day watching TV, where they can sleep without the police disturbing their dreams with a baton. The network also provides information on where to sell plastic, how to beg and where to get the daily fix of intoxication.
The choice of intoxication for most of the children today is sniffing solvent. It is cheap, easily available, can be shared easily, and tides them over their hunger pangs. The ubiquitous garbage all over Mumbai's streets and railway tracks, mainly plastic bottles and bags, fetches 10 rupees a kilo, and usually a couple of hours work can buy a bottle of solvent to last through the day.
'Blank future ahead of them'
There is a vicious cycle between the overflowing garbage cans, poor health services and the increasing number of children left to fend for themselves. Population control, which used to be a big health priority for the state until a few years ago has almost vanished from all government medical agendas. And the easy access to garbage that can be sold for recycling provides an easy fix to money issues for both parents and children.
The municipal schools which provide free education to poor children are overcrowded and under-staffed and in most cases, very, very dreary. There is nothing to keep the children at school and their sense of failure increases.
Again and again, what hit Nick and I strongly in the face, was not so much the present conditions of the children, but the blank future ahead of them. Salaam and Deepa are still young, and still have some joy in their own lives. Hussain and Hussan though cheeky and full of tricks are already cynical and despairing of their lives, bored underneath all their daily fun. A lot of the children we met were like that, hardened by the bleakness of their lives, deadened by intoxication.
'Life on the streets is becoming tougher'
The trouble is that as these children grow older, it becomes harder for them to earn money by begging or selling flowers or books at signals. Jobs are almost impossible to come by. And life on the streets is becoming tougher and tougher as the population increases and state regulations become stricter.
It's not only the state of their feet that tells a child's story. The physical scars on the children's bodies and faces are obvious. Sometimes the violence is self-inflicted. Contrary to expectations, the children are not a threat to other people; their violence is often directed towards themselves. New girls who arrive at the railway station are raped by the older boys and inducted into the gang. New boys are taught to smoke, sniff solvent, beg, and thieve.
The biggest scars they bear though, are their gradual loss of dignity and self-worth, the value to their lives. Once these are lost, it becomes almost impossible to rehabilitate these children. The most that NGOs can do is provide free food, a shelter for a few hours, some medical help.
Help from NGOs
However, several NGOs now also get identity cards made for the children, creating a status for them, encourage and help them to start small savings accounts, help them with getting small jobs. It's an uphill task and cannot be won without the involvement of the children themselves.
We hope that through our documentary, The Slumdog Children of Mumbai, we can give a voice to the children. We also hope that we may be able to help at least a few children to salvage their lives.
Batul Mukhtiar; co-producer, The Slumdog Children of Mumbai