By Prabhat Kumar, Deputy Director – Child Protection, Save the Children

Children in India end up living and working on the streets for numerous reasons. Their families may live in poverty; else, they could have been neglected, abandoned or trafficked. Street children are often hidden, isolated or on the move, so it is difficult to gather accurate statistics about them. However, the estimates show that there are more than 100 million street children worldwide . During the pandemic, the challenge to reach out to them — and even to find them in their usual habitats – is enormous but, no doubt, nothing as large as what their problems must have risen to.

Children in Street Situations (CiSS) are among the most vulnerable groups in India, having limited access to adult supervision, protection, education and health-care. In a study done by Save the Children titled ‘Life on the Streets’ it was found that amongst CiSS there is low level of awareness even about the authorities/agencies they can reach out for assistance. In this study, only 5.3 % of children reported that they were aware of the authority who they can reach out to for support — and only half of these 5.3% had ever used or received such services. Thus to ensure focused needs of CiSS, NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) launched a Standard Operating Procedure for their care and protection. This aimed to create a convergence of the various functionaries, institutions/ agencies, and the multifarious government schemes and policies, for a more holistic approach in providing care, protection and rehabilitation to them.

COVID-19 has posed the greatest threat to CiSS who were already vulnerable and coincidently the hotspots of COVID-19 cases across country are the ones with large population of children in street situations. Tracing the children and their families is already difficult as they have left the hotspots where they lived, to move to the nearby open shelters and makeshift arrangements. Struck with a sudden lack of funds, food, mobility, loss of livelihood and a safe shelter, CiSS and their families are exposed most to some of the harshest realities due to pandemic. Though, there are some efforts by governments and civil society organizations — who provided cooked meal and relief material to these children during the initial phases of COVID-19 — there’s a need of a comprehensive and wholistic package to look into their growing gamut of needs. The Government responded to the crisis by providing relief and constantly informing the citizens on responsible behavior to protect them from infection. However, the already year-long pandemic has had a devastating effect on all sections of the communities and the street children remain the most vulnerable — due to their inability to adopt a self-help approach to deal with the pandemic. It is imperative to note that even before the pandemic, these street children lacked the access to parental care, food, health care or protection but now with the pandemic, it has created a double burden on them — along with the daunting task to access the basic social support system required for survival. For these children and their families, in addition to the deserted streets and the sporadic relief due to movement restricts and general fear of contraction of the virus, any source of income, public alms or cash has disappeared with no savings to fall back on.

In a crisis like this, it is important to ensure that CiSS receive timely care and protection and their rights to survival, development, participation and best interests are protected. There is a need to ensure provisions of adequate food to eat every day, protection from physical injury, abuse and exploitation, and to provide healthy living conditions, with access to medical care and education and, importantly, psycho-social counselling to overcome stresses due to loneliness.

The urban local bodies have better reach out in urban areas given their presence till the ward-level and below. There is a need for strengthening functional ward-level child protection committees. There is also a need to develop a robust child tracking mechanism for the mapping and tracking of vulnerable children such as street children, children involved in begging, child hawkers, child sex workers, trafficked and migrant children, runaway children and others. The existing SOP for care and protection must be fully operationalized in all the states and districts with urban populations.

On International Day for Street Children (April 12), let each stakeholder – governments, civil society, corporates, communities and the public — make a promise and take a pledge to provide every opportunity to all children in street situations to bring positive change in their lives. Especially in these unprecedented harsh times, we need to protect the most vulnerable first.

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