About ten years ago, Shachi Singh saw a 10-year-old boy in tatters at Charbagh railway station in Lucknow, in North India. He tried to sell her a bottle of water.
“I felt pained to see this helpless boy desperate to sell me the water. It was tap water poured into a plastic bottle bearing a mineral water label. A few minutes later, after he had moved away, I saw a policeman brutally thrashing him,” Shachi Singh
She was extremely pained to see this. She resolved that one day she would do something for these unfortunate kids who, instead of going to school and enjoying their childhood, are forced to work in harsh conditions and cope with the repression of the law police authorities.
After completing her Masters in Social Work, Shachi Singh, now in her thirties, set up Ehsaas (Feeling), an NGO that works with kids living on the streets or at the railway station, doing small-time work to make ends meet. Today it’s because of the good work was done by Shachi and her Ehsaas team that the Charbagh railway station has become the first station in India to be declared child labor free. The Government Railway Police officers posted also work as Special Child Welfare Officers to protect the disadvantaged kids.
“Ehsaas was formed in 2002 as we wanted to have a platform where we could work on rights of those children who are out of the home. This helped to focus on children living on footpaths and in railway stations. We not only wanted them to have a decent life, but also a life free from the fear of the police, who invariably vented their frustration on these kids.” Shachi Singh
Sonu, one of the kids who has been rescued by Shachi Singh says, “I belong to Jharkhand and ran away from home. I used to sell bottles of water on the station when ‘Didi’ (elder sister) met me. It was she who forced me to leave this work and study. Shachi didi even ensured that the police didn’t beat me or my friends up anymore.” Sonu now lives in Ehsaas’s shelter home for children.
Over 100 kids like Sonu, have been rescued and given homes who were once living at the Lucknow station and on the city streets. By providing education, vocational training, counseling and other such activities, an attempt has been made to rehabilitate these youngsters and bring them into the mainstream. Efforts have also been made to reunite the children with their families.
The journey, of course, has been a difficult one for Shachi Singh as well as these rescued kids. When Shachi Singh and Ehsaas first started taking these children off the platforms and the streets, they would run away from them, scared of being caught and beaten up. “We had to make them understand that we are their friends. There were times when we had to fight with the police to save the children, which eventually made them trust us and draw closer to us. They started coming to us with their small problems, which we used to sort out for them. Slowly, they became our friends,” remembers Neeraj, who works with Shachi in Ehsaas.
But this was just a humble beginning. There were many challenges lying ahead for the team. “The personnel from the Government Railway Police (GRP), as well as the Railway Protection Force, were apprehensive about our work. They thought we were intruding into their territory. Not only did they just refuse to talk to us, they even threatened us,” says Neeraj.
So Shachi Singh decided that if she wanted to make the life of kids on the platforms better, she would need to make the railway police force conscious of the fact that even these children had rights and needs. As she herself says, “How could they be brutal to small kids? They were only working for their survival. At times, children would come to us crying that the police had taken away their day’s earnings, calling it illegal. We would then fight for these kids.”
Their efforts to sensitize the police went on for a while without any results for a long while. Slowly things began to change. Recalls Singh, “We kept trying to convince them to at least sit with us and talk. And then, the arrival of a sensitive station manager came as a blessing for us.” Together with him, Singh’s team began the seemingly impossible task of making the station free from child labor.
They worked towards making sure that no shopkeepers at the station hired children. Those who had kids in their shops were requested to let them go. “Some agreed, while others had to be threatened. The consequences of hiring child labor were explained to them,”tells Rajesh Kumar, a GRP inspector at Lucknow station.
In the year 2010, Shachi Singh requested the Additional Director General of the GRP, A.K. Jain, to help in the project and he agreed. “We told him how the police were being brutal to the kids and how child rights protected each and every child who lived on the street as well. He heard us out and allowed us to hold regular sensitizing sessions with his men on duty at the Lucknow station. In fact, with his orders in hand, we were able to ensure that at least the personnel heard us out,” Shachi says happily.
Today, the Lucknow station of North India is completely child labor free. “We now realize that these children need to be handled with care. And if not anything else, the least we can do is to ensure that they live in a safe environment,” says Kumar.
Yogesh Dubey, a member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, who visited the Charbagh station and found that there was “not a single child working on the station” appreciated the efforts of Shachi Singh and her Ehsaas team.
Shachi’s work doesn’t end here. There are still a number of things she wants to do for her ‘street friends’. On her to-do list is the setting up of short stay centers in areas where it’s been found that children either run away or are forced out of their home. There are also plans to establish a vocational center providing computer training among other skills. For these children who had once lived off the main streets of Lucknow, the future is brighter now.