A Day with the Little Inmates of Virat Nagar Bal Ashram
Dec 19: Childhood is said to be the most beautiful and enjoyable phase of human life, finding no parallel with any other facet of our life. This is true for those who have a typical childhood characterized by loads of fun and enjoyment sans any responsibility. But have we ever given a thought about children who are deprived of a normal upbringing and thus denied the simple pleasures of childhood we all gloat about so explicitly?
Most of us talk avidly about conflicting issues concerning our country contributing little to allay it or to find an eternal solution. Fortunately, there are people who have worked silently towards a cause making vital difference to the lives of millions of people. Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) is a pioneering Child Rights and anti-human trafficking non-governmental organization which came into being in 1980, due to the painstaking efforts of Kailash Satyarthi and the support of a few like-minded people. In the last three decades of its existence BBA has come to be recognized as the largest grassroots movement in our country fighting against child labour, child trafficking and child servitude. BBA was instrumental in bringing about policy changes in the government aimed at improving the lives of children.
In August this year the Cabinet approved the new Child & Adolescent Labour (Prohibition) Act accepting the demands of Bachpan Bachao Andolan for a child labour free India, which played a crucial role in bringing about policy changes. The union cabinet approved the act putting a blanket ban on employing anybody below 18 years in hazardous occupation. BBA was also exerted a crucial role in the formulation of Right to Education Act of 2009.
So far BBA has rescued more than 80,000 children from the drudgery and slavery of child labour resulting in their re-integration, rehabilitation and education. The organization is not just content with rescuing the children. There are short term recuperation centres and long stay rehabilitation centers like Bal Ashrams to give a new lease of life to these children. These rehabilitation centers act as the guiding force of these children of diverse background to pick up the threads of their devastated lives. Kailash Satyarthi and his team has worked persistently to free bonded children and rehabilitated them with vocational training and education, thus bringing the smiles back on their innocent faces.
Seeing is Believing
During my recent visit to Virat Nagar in Rajasthan I had the opportunity to visit The Bal Ashram, one such initiative of BBA and spend a day with the inmates of the hostel. Unlike other hostels that house some of the destitute children, the smiling face of the inmates of this hostel foretell a different story, a story of how human kindness and a little bit of efforts can make a sea-change to the lives of these traumatized children. Happiness is writ large on the face of these children who cheerfully say they feel more at home at the hostel, which treats them with benevolence and dignity.
The ashram which shelters about 54 rescued boys is nestled amidst the picturesque green surroundings fortified by the mighty Aravali range. Strolling around the green foliage around the ashram enjoying the beauty of the greenery along with the Director of the Ashram Sumedha Satyarthi (wife of Kailash Satyarthi) I just tried to dispel the qualms I had about Rajasthan being a dry and barren land. “In 1997 when we bought this land it was a barren and we converted it into a green heaven. In the last 15 years there has been a miracle change in the place and we have also been able to usher drastic changes in the lives of rescued children in this ashram”, explains Sumedha, even as she tells me about Kailash Satyarthi, the man behind the movement.
Kailash Satyarthi gave up a lucrative career as an Electrical Engineer to spearhead a movement of rescuing bonded labourers. Despite facing numerous life-threatening attacks Kailash remained steadfast in his commitment to the cause of these unfortunate children. The result is that BBA has become a protected home for the rescued children, bringing a new ray of hope in their tattered lives, thus giving them a foretaste of the childhood they did not have.
Though Bal Bhavan has a capacity for 100 children there are 54 boys at the ashram at the moment coming from different states and from divergent backgrounds. Most of these boys are those rescued by the volunteers from various factories and from bus shelter and railway stations. While these children rue their misfortune of being a bonded labourers or destitutes they consider themselves fortuitous to be in Bal Bhavan where they have a conducive atmosphere to rebuild their shattered lives.
Light in Deepak’s Life
Deepak Kumar, the first inmate of Bal Bhavan at Virat Nagar speaks about the hostel in glowing terms. Deepak Kumar was picked up from New Delhi Railway Station by the volunteers of BBA and was brought to the hostel when he was about 8 years old in 1998. This tormented boy who believed to have come from Orissa was exploited by a gang that put him into begging. He narrates the heartrending story of witnessing the hands of two boys like him being severed by the gang when these children failed to bring enough money by begging. It is believed that the gang fixes a target of earning for the children and when they fail they amputate their hands or legs so that they get public sympathy and get more money.
Recalling the day when Deepak was brought Sumedha Satyarthi says ‘the boy was quite frightened and he never used to speak for nearly a month. I never lost my patience and cajoled him and he slowly recuperated”. Deepak who has come to the hostel says “I remember Mathaji used to put me in her lap and console me when I was scared”. Deepak who has come to the hostel to celebrate Deepavali states with tear-filled eyes “It is my house which has given me a rebirth. I have come here to spend some time with my friends and with mathaji (Sumedha). This hostel is not less than a heaven for me”.
Deepak has picked up the threads of his life and continued his education to carve out an independent life. In 2002 Deepak had been to America as the chief guest representing the children of India, something which he had not dreamt of. After his SSLC he learnt driving and worked as a driver for some time and is now back in the hostel as he had problem getting a permanent license. Now Sumedha has promised to help him get his license and has also asked him to work at the hostel as driver and also continue his studies, which he is more than willing to do.
There is also another youngster Vishal who faced the peculiar problem of rejection from his mother. Vishal who had escaped from being sacrificed by his parents had escaped with a severe wound on his scalp. He escape was viewed as a bad omen by his mother and hence the rejection. Though the ashram has sheltered him, nursed him back to health and given him education to be independent he is still shaky and fickle-minded as he is always drawn towards the family unable to accept the rejection, says Sumedha.
Sense of Security
Most of the children I spoke to say that they don’t feel they are in the hostel as they are showered with all love, care affection and a sense of security by Sumedha Satyarthi and other care takers. The underlying objective of the ashram is to provide social security, gender equality and environmental concern even while making them independent by providing formal and vocational education. While some children are given elementary education at the ashram itself as most of them cross that age when they arrive at the ashram, many others go to a formal school or college. Those children interested in getting vocational training are trained in carpentry, tailoring, electrical, welding, gardening, driving and cooking.
The Ashram has provided a condusive atmosphere for the children to develop their personality to showcase their talent and excel in classical singing, dancing, music, sports and games and other extracurricular activities. Sumedha Satyarthi who has a penchant for singing, dancing and music has been nurturing their talents in these streams. “Our children have shown incredible talent and they work hard to excel in all activities in their schools and colleges. Many of them have represented the state in various extracurricular activities”, says Sumedha proudly.
During my stay there the children had arranged a one-hour programme for me and it was just amazing to see them bubbling with an effervescent energy and enthusiasm which was quite infectious. After the formal programme they danced and skylarked to the tunes of music, many of them exhibiting their amazing dancing prowess. It was unmistakable the happiness in their faces was not something that was stage-managed for the occasion. It was a manifestation of their genuine inner feelings that got reflected in their faces. I could not help recollecting my own childhood days in the hostel, the very memory which makes me shudder with indignation. I must say these children Bal Ashram have been fortunate to have come under the protective wings of Bal Ashram.
The Healing Touch
Sumedha tells me it is not easy to mould these children initially as they come from diverse backgrounds. Most of these children had a tormented childhood, were abused, addicted to drugs and were in a very bad shape both mentally and physically, Sumedha points out. Initially they are not able to adjust to the organized lifestyle of the ashram and some even run away. Considering their background the Ashram authorities give top priority to counsel them. Apart from taking care of these children the caretakers also make efforts to trace the parents of the children and if possible send them back to their homes if the home atmosphere is not encouraging.
The ashram has many milking cows and the children are provided with fresh milk every day. It also grows some vegetables and fruits and it was sheer pleasure to see the fruit-bearing u gooseberry trees.
BBA has been working with a multi-pronged approach to deal with the rights of their children and issues affecting them. Its efforts have been utile in bringing about a marked change and bolstering the movement against child labour. He is the guiding force behind the 1998 Global March Movement against child labour that held a worldwide physical march across 103 countries covering about 80,000 kms.
Kailash Satyarthi’s efforts have borne positive results which is evident in the joyful faces of the children whose life has taken a turn for the better due to his prodigious efforts. As days pass, the eudemonia I witnessed in the faces of these children during my stay with them fills me with gaiety. It is said that one can see god in children and Kailash and Sumedha Satyarthi must be drawing vigor from this very thought. I too feel there is no better way to pay gratitude to god than to serve the cause of children.