Nov 8, 2009

Neglecting a vital matter

In Karachi the street children can become fodder for terrorism!

By Dr Noman Ahmed

During a warm June afternoon along the pavements of M. A. Jinnah Road, some members of law enforcing agencies thrashed few adolescents. When questioned by a passer-by, they retorted that boys could be terrorists, as they had no identity card on them. And they confessed to have come from Swat. The visibly shaken lads, now in sobs, begged for the help of the conversing soul. They narrated their ordeal that their house in Mingora was destroyed in a shell attack and their parents killed. They simply ran for their lives and ended up in Karachi to search for a relative only to learn that he is no more. Now they have nowhere accepted the street as the only abode. After terse interrogation, the boys were left to their destiny to brave the ruthless streets of the metropolis.

Street children are not a new phenomenon for Karachi, or for that matter, other large cities of similar scales and profiles. There are many reasons for rendering children and adolescents shelter less and hence street bound. The war ravaged Afghanistan pushed thousands of children into Pakistan to fend for them. Many of them eloped out of refugee camp confinements for better lives. Abject poverty in the central parts of the country -- such as southern Punjab -- prompted the children of worst affected households to try luck in the glitters of larger urban centres. In certain cases, family breakdowns were a means for disintegration of parental bonds.

Consequentially, affected children escaped from the brutalities of stepmothers, stepfathers or other kins. In few cases, the children ran away from the tyrannies of a feudal, land lord or similar character who had become custodian of the lives of the entire families. Research by scholars in urban planning and sociology also show that apart from those who permanently dwell on the streets, there is a category of daytime street mongers who are still connected with their families. Such folks only use the street experience for income generation pursuits of varied kinds. Some street based ring leaders also bring in children under their charge to make the most of economic opportunities.

The predicaments faced by street children are several and utmost painful from any human standard. For the bare and basic necessities of life, they have no confirmed access. Every morning, they search for a desolated corner to attend calls of nature! Access to a hygienic option to this effect is totally far from imagination. In some cases, they force their way in to public places such as mosques, hospitals or roadside public buildings. But the keepers of such premises hound them away. Clean drinking water is another luxury that is not within the reach. Public taps, shops, eateries, restaurants, kiosks and other such establishments are the options. Harassment of various sorts is a daily hazard faced by them. Cops, members of rival street dweller groups, local gangsters and organised criminals pester them to no end. Tales of sexual and physical abuse, deprivation of measly personal belongings or cash, accusation and persecution haunt them without fail! The physical, social and psychological scars cast irrevocable shadows on their innocent souls permanently. Many become hardened criminals. Others end up as pedophiles, street urchins or small time drug peddlers, boot leggers or affiliates of the more conspicuous dons!

Survival thresholds for street children are extremely dismal. For food, the city has some solace. There are many restaurants and extended tea stalls that offer breakfast and food free of cost to the poor. Working through donations from local philanthropists, these outlets have worked out special time schedules for them. There are many NGOs and trusts that offer either free or heavily subsidised food regularly. Khana Ghar in Surjani Town is an example, which charges two rupees per person for wholesome meal. Alternatives of positive employment are available in some domains in informal sector. As majority has no skill or social capital to bank upon, they resort to rag picking and scavenging as a readily available avenue of income generation. The city does not have an effective system of waste management. This urban bane becomes a boon for the poor destitute. They pick up every object that has a recycling worth. Paper, bottles, packing material remains, metallic left overs, glass, bones and plastics are some of the usual categories of objects collected by this juvenile and self employed work force.

After a day's hard work, they either dump the collected items in an isolated corner along the street or sell it to junk dealers of the area. "I earn Rs120/= per day after non-stop working from dawn to late evening," replied Khasta Khan -- a 15 year old boy from Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. He is saving regularly to be able to buy a bicycle to enhance his mobility. "As the local hotel owner (in Nazimabad) is very kind and gives meals for free, I will be able to purchase a second hand bike in three months", he replied with mirth on his face. But this work has his own hazards. According to a research report by Dr. Syed Mansoor Ali who works for 'Practical Action' -- a UK based NGO -- there are more than 30,000 street children/teenagers connected to scavenging. While their effort helps in reducing the volume of waste in Karachi, it is a source of grave health hazard for them.

When they come across used needles, syringes, bandages, blood bags and other forms of health care waste articles, the probability of contracting deadly contagious diseases mount tremendously. The problem further compounds when some of them end up as blood donors to public hospitals or ill equipped facilities. Other occupations include working as porters in Sunday bazaars or other such places, selling flowers or small time articles on the roads and begging. Some of them also become child prostitutes and carry that trade in the later parts of their lives.

Negligible support is available for the rehabilitation or repatriation to normal life. Azad Foundation is an NGO devotedly engaged with the affairs of street children. It spreads awareness about health hazards through demonstrations, lectures and counselling. The foundation also lobbies for the development of necessary infrastructure such as drop in centres, toilet blocks and literacy facilities. It is planning a moot in October 2009 on the topic of mental and psychological issues affecting street children. Other organisations that support the cause of street children include Edhi Foundation, some orphanages and madrassas.

However, the magnitude of the problem is far greater than the available options. The works of well-initiated NGOs must be boosted and up-scaled. The city authorities may apportion funds for the proper design and construction of basic physical facilities for street users, including children. They may be suitably located all around the city to benefit this vast category of destitute. If we keep neglecting this vital matter, menaces like street crime and even terrorism shall continue to haunt our cities.

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