Ten years ago, a young woman happened to be at the Charbagh railway station in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s state capital, when a young boy of around 10 came up to her. Dressed in tatters, his face streaked with mud, 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,” she recalls.
She was moved to tears by that sight. She promised herself that one day she would do something for the numerous children she saw about her who, instead of spending their days studying and enjoying their childhood, are being forced to work in the most inhuman conditions and cope with the repression of the law enforcement authorities.
And she has. After completing her Masters in Social Work, Shachi Singh, who is now in her thirties, set up Ehsaas, an organisation that works with children living on the streets or at the railway station, spending their days doing small-time work to make ends meet. In fact, today it’s because of all the good work done by Singh and her Ehsaas team that the Charbagh railway station has become the first station in the country to be declared child labour free. Moreover, the Government Railway Police officers posted there double up as Special Child Welfare Officers to protect these disadvantaged children.
Says Singh, “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 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.”
Says a visibly happy Sonu, one of the many children who have been been rescued by Singh, “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.
Like Sonu, Singh’s organisation has rescued and given a home to over 100 children once living at the Lucknow station and on the streets in the city. Through education, vocational training, counselling and other such activities, efforts have been made to rehabilitate these youngsters and bring them into the mainstream. Wherever possible, there is also a conscious attempt to reunite the children with their families.
But all this did not happen overnight. It’s been a difficult journey – for the activist as well as the rescued children. When the organisation first started taking the kids off the platforms and the streets, they would run away from Singh and her team, fearing that they would be 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,” recalls Neeraj, who works with Singh in Ehsaas.
But this breakthrough was just a modest start. There were many more troubles in store 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.
It was then that Singh decided that if she needed to make the life of children 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 puts it, “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 sensitise 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 labour.
First, they worked towards ensuring that no shopkeeper at the station hired children. Those who did have them on their rolls were asked to let them go. “Some agreed, while others had to be threatened. The consequences of hiring child labour was explained to them,” elaborates Rajesh Kumar, a GRP inspector at Lucknow station.
Then, in 2010, Singh managed to rope in Additional Director General of the GRP, A.K. Jain, to help in the project. “We told him how the police was 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 sensitising 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,” Singh says.
In April, Singh was able to achieve what she had set out to do nearly a decade ago. Today, the Lucknow station is completely child labour free. The GRP has also created a child-friendly booth for lost children and across the 72 districts of Uttar Pradesh, GRP officials have been given additional responsibility as Child Welfare Officers. “We now realise 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.
Singh and her dedicated team even earned praise from Yogesh Dubey, a member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, who recently visited the Charbagh station and found that there was “not a single child working on the station”.
But Singh’s work doesn’t end here. There are many things she wants to do for her “friends from the streets”. On the agenda is the setting up of short stay centres 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 centre providing computer training among other skills. For these kids who had once lived off the mean streets of Lucknow, the future has just got brighter