``Education made me a real human being'

Most kids who live on the street hunger for schooling beyond mere vocational training, former street child Shahadat tells KA Shaji
Shahadat is a model for these children, all of them either orphaned, abandoned or runaways from abusive homes. For them, Shahadat is proof that an education can help one get ahead, irrespective of handicapsWhen he was barely eight years old, Shahadat decided to run away from home.
Shahadat was born in Darbhanga in north Bihar and his parents were too poor to feed him and his four brothers and four sisters. Caught in their own cycles of the despair poverty engenders, the elders in the family often beat Shahadat and his siblings for no apparent reason.
The Delhi-bound trains departing from the local station became a fantasy exit out of a miserable life for Shahadat, and he decided to go to the capital and earn enough to feed himself. All of eight, and he already felt he had sufficient experience of the working world: his father had put him to work at a textile embroidery unit and Shahadat had also sold balloons in the streets with his father, who was a balloon seller himself.
Arriving in Delhi, Shahadat found work at a tea stall. He was, naturally, more concerned about getting enough food every day than in receiving equitable wages, but the tea-stall owner gave him neither enough food nor wages. What he did get in ample daily doses was abuse. After working at the tea shop for 15 days, he fled, retracing his steps to the place he had arrived in the city at — the New Delhi Railway Station. There, in a sad replay of Oliver Twist, he found his “saviour” in the form of the leader of a gang of pickpockets and the “generous” man agreed to take him on as a disciple.
Unfortunately, while the boy proved to be adept at learning “theory”, he was an abject failure when it came to his ‘practicals’. Shahadat was then assigned the task of stealing from the cartons that would be dumped in and around the parcel service office in the station compound. Wrapping himself in an outsize shawl, Shahadat would manage to steal such items as sarees, some fairly expensive, on several occasions. These he would later sell at cheaper rates just outside the station. “I still remember a lady who had ordered an expensive saree through the parcel service, buying it outside the railway station for only Rs 200. She never realised that the saree was the same which she had ordered weeks earlier, paying a hefty amount, and which had got ‘lost’ during transportation,” he recalls.
Shahadat is now a polished young man of 18. “Even when I was in the company of thieves at the railway station, I never felt inclined to take drugs. Nor did I really ever want to become a major thief. An inner voice prevented me from such things,” he says. He began selling drinking water at the station platform at a nominal commission to escape a life of crime and make an honest living. He is now a member of the Salaam Baalak Trust, a Delhi-based ngo engaged in the rehabilitation of street children.
The trust took him under its wings some years ago and he has passed Class x through the National Open School with good marks. He has also won recognition as a stage performer and as a painter. He now sees a future for himself pursuing a career in computer animation — it’s a skill he wants to pick up because “it would help me lead a dignified life, and put my not-so-bright past behind me”, he says.
Ask him about his astonishingly fluent English and he smiles. “There are a lot of philanthropists, including foreigners, who visit the Salaam Baalak trust each day to see the realities of how the underprivileged of our society live. The trust offers a ‘tour of the railway station surroundings, for which I am one of the child-guides. I picked up my English talking to the people I would show around,” he says.In a gali near the New Delhi Railway Station, there are around 150 boys and 50 girls who have been provided accommodation at the Salaam Baalak Trust home, and who are striving to overcome the odds life presented them and make the most of the opportunity it has also given them. Shahadat is a model for these children, all of them on their own, either orphaned, abandoned or runaways from abusive homes.
For them, Shahadat is proof that an education can help one get ahead, irrespective of the handicaps of the life circumstances one might be born to.Amith, an orphan from West Bengal, scored 84 percent in Class xii and aspires to join the National Defence Academy. VJ Manjunath from Tamil Nadu scored 70 percent marks in Class x.
Shahadat and his friend Pankaj Kumar Gupta, who has also overcome similar circumstances, have decided to continue working with the trust and help it remould the destiny of its young residents.Shahadat credits his education with everything. “Education made us real human beings with an inherent thirst to serve others,” he says.
While most young people his age, whether they are rich or poor, cherish dreams of becoming doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs, Shahadat and the others that the trust has helped see education not just as a door to job opportunities and a means to get ahead in life, but also as a boon which has empowered them to help other children who come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds build themselves a dignified life.
“A few years ago, one of the former inmates of the trust became a photojournalist with a reputed national daily,” Shahadat tells us. “Now, he is a freelance photographer, which gets him more money. But, despite his tremendous professional success, he never forgot the trust and everything it had done for him, and he continues working for the trust, helping to rehabilitate other abandoned or orphaned children. His example is a real inspiration for all of us.” Shahadat also talks with glowing pride of another former Salaam Baalak resident, who went on to study at the National School of Drama and subsequently even worked in a film.
The Salaam Baalak Trust was established by the noted film director Mira Nair’s mother, Praveen Nair, jointly with theatre personality Sanjoy Roy. The organisation takes its name from Mira Nair’s first film Salaam Bombay, the acclaimed story of a young boy, very similar to Shahadat, who runs away from home and ends up becoming a street child in Mumbai. The trust sees its mission as not merely confined to the rehabilitation of street children, but as also being about giving kids a chance to lend others a helping hand.
In addition to providing basic amenities like food, clothes and shelter, the trust provides these children with security and the invaluable assurance that a life full of dark uncertainties is truly a thing of past for them.What compels a child to run away from home? The circumstances differ from case to case, but all stem from one variant or another of abuse. There are children who are born out of wedlock; there are those who are subjected to cruelty by family and relatives. Once on the streets, these children have no option but to scavenge rubbish heaps for leftovers, sleep wherever they find shelter, and run the daily risk of falling prey to pimps and drug traffickers.
“Most children think of education as a basic requirement of life. They have a zest for education and only a minority prefers vocational training,” Shahadat says. Vocational training, however, helps many stand on their own feet, providing them with a secure future. Those interested are trained to become mechanics, tailors, or even computer operators.Many runaway children end up becoming drug addicts and the trust provides them with medical aid and admits them to de-addiction centres.
Former residents like Shahadat help experts working with addicted children. For children in distress, there is Childline, a 24-hour help-line run by the trust. It operates a toll-free number and it is former residents like Shahadat who attend the calls — doing their bit at their young age to help other children who have nowhere else to go.(Tehelka, Nov 25 , 2006)

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