For as long as he can remember, Parvesh, 7, has been spending his days sweeping the floors of railway compartments. Every morning, armed with a small broom, he boards long-distance trains at the Bhopal railway station and collects whatever he can from the passengers as alms. His daily earnings rarely exceed Rs 30 and every single rupee is normally spent by the time he calls it a day.
There is, however, now a silver lining to his otherwise drab existence. Parvesh doesn’t need to spend his nights on the platform or plead in front of bullying cops any longer. Thanks to Nitya Sewa, a voluntary organisation, he now has a home—a place where he’s assured of a decent meal and a comfortable bed to spend the night after the back-breaking day. Also, there’s now a sense of security and identity which he’s always missed.
Nitya Sewa has been running a night-shelter for street-children at Bhopal for the last three years. Around 50 children, who spend their days doing odd jobs, now look forward to the evening meals and the bunk-beds at Chandbad near the railway station. Life is so much different for them now—at least it’s a world beyond sexual abuse, drug addiction or street gangs.
Interestingly, the shelter is run by cops—founded by Asha Gopal, the first woman IPS officer of MP cadre, and her German husband, Claus D. von der Fink, who’s also a senior police officer in Germany. Vivek Johri, a DIG with the state police, manages the shelter as its secretary.
Started two years ago with a small amount of Rs 3 lakh, mainly donated by German benefactors, the shelter today houses 75 children. There are two separate sheds for boys and girls, and most of the inmates are in the 8-14 age group. Food is prepared in an in-house kitchen equipped with all essential items including a refrigerator and cooking gas.
But it’s not just about spending the night comfortably or earning a decent meal. The organisation also runs a non-formal school under the state government’s Rajiv Gandhi Shiksha Mission. Every day the children are coaxed to get up early in the morning for their four-hour classes. Says the project coordinator, Reena Thomas, like a doting mother complaining of her naughty kids: "The most difficult part is to drag them out of their beds for the classes. But all of them are showing a keen interest." Impressed with the good work Asha Gopal and her husband has been doing, help has been forthcoming from different quarters. While the state government has provided free land to house the shelter, Dr Ajay Mehta, a local physician who runs a charitable hospital, extends free medical care for the needy children. He has already conducted four surgeries in the last two years. Apart from education, the children are also trained in some vocational activities like screen-printing and making paper envelopes. Asha is also planning to start a computer typing course for all those who attend classes regularly.
The shelter aims at helping the children understand dignity of labour. Almost all of them do petty jobs in hostels or other establishments around the station—while some are ragpickers, many others are cobblers. Says Johri: "Yes, we know that child labour is illegal. But we cannot stop them from working. And we do not want to do it." In any case, he says, the kids don’t want to live on charity."I was surprised when many of them refused to accept old clothes from well-intentioned people. We now plan to put a nominal price tag on the garments and provide it to the children," he adds. Johri also claims that a large number of children have started saving a little from their daily earnings. "In some cases, the employers of the kids don’t want them to be enrolled in the shelter. In such cases, we do not take the help of the police. Instead, we go and try to explain to the employers that a healthier kid would only be an aid to them," says Thomas.
The shelter has a high floating population. The reasons range from a ban on smoking and tobacco chewing to "resistance to disciplined life". But there are some who don’t want to leave—ever. Thirteen-year-old Sanju, who escaped from his home in Betual because of a step-mother some years back, is one of them. "I do not even go to the station. I make envelopes and I live here the whole day," he says. The organisation can be contacted at: Nitya Sewa Society, 60, Zone-II, MP Nagar, Bhopal—452011.