By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, Sep 19 (IANS): This week, Mumbaikars were shocked to learn of a school topper girl, who - lured by a glamour career - ran away to Telangana, but was safely rescued by Mumbai Police and brought back to her family.
She is among the one crore kids, mostly girls, who run away from home, often on flimsiest grounds, and end up in strange states, cities or in deep trouble, every year, as per NCRB data.
A lucky few catch the eyes of Samatol Foundation, Mumbai, a NGO founded in 2006 by Vijay Jadhav, which specialises in 'catching' such runaway or trafficked kids all over the country.
"In the past 15 years, we have rescued and reunited around 12,750 kids, most aged between 8-16 years, a majority being girls, but we even get 5-6 years old children or 17-20-year old teens," Jadhav told IANS.
It all started around 2006, when he espied a kid loitering on Mumbai streets, apparently lost and baffled, and took his charge.
"He was a very bright child of Muslim parents from Hyderabad who pressurised him for academic excellence, so he just hopped into a train and reached Mumbai. As he refused to speak, his family, school authorities and Hyderabad Police came here and arrested me, believing I was a kidnapper," chuckled Jadhav.
As an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), Jadhav attended many of rallies and protests in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, etc., and between 1997-2000, came across hundreds of kids either lost, abandoned, runaway or trafficked and decided to do something for them, by working with YUVA, a NGO, till 2004.
"My inaugural case was a 12-year-old boy, son of a Parbhani village Sarpanch, who ran away just because his dad refused to buy him a bicycle till he turned 18..! The grateful villagers invited and felicitated me… That sowed the seeds for launching Samatol Foundation," Jadhav recalled.
Over the past 15 years, the Samatol Foundation has helped 'catch' and reunite nearly 13K kids, working 24x7, with over 5,000 volunteers keeping an eye for such children at railway stations, bus depots, near eateries, etc.
"I personally met over a 1,000-families all over India reunited with their kids… Their joy was overwhelming and they celebrated as if it was an off-season Diwali… Our efforts are worth it," he said.
Jadhav said that of the 10-million kids who 'run away' or 'disappear' annually, the maximum or more than one million, land up in Mumbai alone, a favourite destination of many.
The reasons often are as 'childish' as the children… A 14-year-old girl decamped from Jalandhar to meet her idol Salman Khan, a 16-year-old wrote her SSC exams and directly caught a train from Allahabad for Mumbai, dreaming of a heroine's role opposite Shah Rukh Khan.
A 14-year-old boy ran away from Patna to Mumbai to catch a glimpse of his heart-throb Aishwarya Rai while a Bhopal boy, disgusted by his quarreling parents, just walked out to reach Mumbai, but after three days he panicked and wanted to return home…
"Child Rights are not taught in India at school level, there is very little awareness among the people so such kids are easy prey for atrocities or human trafficking, especially the girls," rued Jadhav.
The Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, has mandated a Child Welfare Police Officer in each police station and a Special Juvenile Police Unit for every district/city in India, but it is hardly implemented, he said.
Samatol Foundation now has over two dozen people on the rolls, 5,000-plus vigilantes, who immediately issue an alert when they notice a suspected runaway child, as part of its 'child friendly society' campaign.
"The commonest place we get them are railway stations or bus depots, most are hungry or dirty as they have exhausted all resources and feel abandoned… We step in through our offices in five districts and 10 major railway stations in Mumbai, to provide succour," explained Jadhav.
A memorable case of 2010 was the rescue of a Tripura IPS officer's minor son who left home to meet his cricket idol - Sachin Tendulkar, in Mumbai, and after Jadhav reunited him with his family, he was accorded a public felicitation during a major festival of the Northeast state.
The lone candle lit by Jadhav has now multiplied into many torches, several groups and organisations help Samatol Foundation, students from TISS and international universities come here to train, study or volunteer, and now there's an App to enable anybody report runaway kids from anywhere, anytime… "who will be cared of".
"Since the governments have only Juvenile Centres, we have set up a 'child-friendly-home' in Kalyan to house these kids safely till they are reunited with their families…" Jadhav smiled.
The kids usually fall in two categories - the 'fresh' runaways who are identified and sent home, and the 'veterans' who left home long ago but learn to survive in Mumbai and other big cities, working as 'chaiwala' help, delivery boys, or such odd jobs, eat and live near railway stations, etc.
"It's difficult and time-consuming to reunite them, but we try to do it… We have started 40 counselling centres with 25 such kids in each session, many are very delighted to return to the comfort and security of their home and kin after years of separation and even resume interrupted education," he said with pride.
Till date, the 'Good Samaritan' Jadhav suffered arrest and jailed twice on alleged kidnapping charges - but was 'rescued' by his own family, while Samatol Foundation has piled up laurels and a staggering 450-plus awards, but the number of runaway kids doesn't seem to ebb…