Seeking a way out of the slums

Many street children in India say Slumdog Millionaire offers them a glimmer of hope.

    Slumdog Millionaire opened in India on January 23 and has met with much success [EPA] 

    Vijay, a 12-year-old rag-picker, sat cross-legged and transfixed in front of a small television set at a shelter for street children in New Delhi.

    "This film is about my life," he said as he watched Slumdog Millionaire, the rags-to-riches film set in Mumbai.

    The film, which has won four Golden Globe awards and has been nominated for 10 Oscars, reveals the harsh, nearly hopeless plight of India's street children.

    In New Delhi alone there are 400,000 children living on the streets.

    "It showed the way poor children like me eat and sleep together, and how we survive," he said. 

    Vijay is from a village in the eastern state of Bihar where his father, a landless labourer, had struggled to provide for six children after their mother died of tuberculosis. 

    When the father remarried a woman with four children of her own, Vijay said his step-mother would beat and taunt him that he ate too much and was of no use to the family.

    "She wanted me to work in the fields night and day. She picked on me the whole time and my father didn't defend me," he said.

    Vijay fled the village and stowed away on a train, much like the children in Slumdog Millionaire and arrived in Delhi where he made friends with some other boys, slept on the streets and fished out re-usable things from rubbish dumps.

    "I always found other boys like me to help me with food and clothes. Otherwise, I don't know what might have happened," he said. 

    Butterflies refuge

    Street children in New Delhi earn less than 60 cents a day [ARCHIVE]
    He and his friends survived on the streets earning token change from serving tea in roadside stalls, and selling snacks or bangles on pushcarts until  Butterflies, a local NGO, offered them part-time education and a place to shelter at night.

    The shelter is near the railway station in the old quarter of the capital where teeming crowds, rickshaw wallahs, street vendors, cyclists, cows, and motorists jostle for space.

    It has served as a refuge from drug-peddlers, paedophiles, and child-trafficking rings and has taught the boys the skills they need to come up with their own solutions and initiatives.

    With the help of the instructors, the children have set up a Bal Sabha or children’s council, which meets regularly to discuss their problems and how to deal with issues such as police harassment, drug abuse, gambling, non-payment of wages, and street gangs.

    The organisers hope that the council provides the children with an understanding of democracy, their rights to freedom of expression and the importance of compromise.

    Triumph of hope

    Many street children are exploited in the drug and sex trades [Gagan Deep]
    At Butterflies, Al Jazeera showed an advance DVD copy of the film (provided by its producers) to several young boys, aged eight to 18.

    They sat on the stone floor of the shelter – a large bare room with rolled-up bedding on one side and a row of lockers where the boys can keep their clothes, on the other – to watch the famous film they had heard was about 'poor kids' like them. 

    Though the film did not include the usual slew of action sequences and song-and-dance routines of the Bollywood films they normally watch, the street children were mesmerised by the characters and their struggle to survive.

    The boys identified with many of the themes reflected in the film, including police harassment, gang intimidation, the lure of drug abuse and the sex trade.

    Vijay says that several young men tried to make him do 'dirty' things, as he put it, but he would always run away.

    "Some of my friends go to men's homes and do things there but I never did," he said, looking embarrassed at having to talk about the subject.
    He says he has never tried drugs or sniffed glue.

    However, he and his friends said there are lessons to be learnt from the film's optimistic undertones.

    "It shows that if we study hard and work hard, then we too can become millionaires," said Sudeep, a 10-year-old boy who carries electric lamps used in wedding processions.

    Many of the children make 20-30 rupees (40-60 cents) a day.

    "If not millionaires, we can become 'lakhpatis' (a Hindi word meaning someone who has 100,000 rupees)," he said.

    Incredible resilience

    Danny Boyle, the director, says the film is about the "triumph of hope" [EPA]
    Rekha Bains, a social activist who works with destitute children in Delhi, says their resilience is incredible.

    "They have no preconceptions, no disillusionment. They just look forward ... to the next day, the next bit of income, the next programme on television. There is only hope, no self-pity," she said. 

    The children told Al Jazeera they wanted to become policemen, teachers, engineers, and doctors.

    "No matter how poor you are, if you try hard and someone helps you or guides you, you can get on in life" said Dugesh, 13, wearing an over-sized sports outfit.

    He said he is saving money in the Butterflies bank - operated by the children themselves - to one day return to his village in Chattisgarh, a town in Madhya Pradesh (the State of Central India).

    Dugesh says he ran away from home several years ago in hopes of a better life in Delhi and has not heard from his family since.


    While the boys adore Indian film stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, they say they found stark differences between Slumdog Millionaire and standard Bollywood fare.

    "The film made me think about my life. Indian films are 'timepass'," said Akash, 13, using an expression that has passed into Indian English, meaning an activity that passes the time but is not inherently interesting.

    The film has been criticised by slum-dwellers who believe the word 'slumdog' is insulting. They have also lambasted the film's producers for paying meagre fees to some of the local child actors used in the beginning of the film.
    Other commentators have also said the film does little to raise awareness of the plight of street children, arguing that thousands of children escape to urban centres and work in roadside tea stalls and sleep on the street but receive little media attention. 

    Vijay says he does not concern himself with what the newspapers have written about the film and instead longs to be reunited with his family.

    "I don't know how to write. I haven't had any contact with my family and they haven't come looking for me," he said.

    He hopes to return to Bihar next year.

    "Yes, I'd like to see my brothers and sisters. I wonder what they are doing now but I won't go back until I have passed my exams."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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