Survival for Beginners India's Street Kids Find New Lives as Tour Guides

Children living on the streets of Delhi, the Indian capital, are trying their luck as tour guides. By giving Westerners a closer look at the life of street kids, they are also helping themselves to escape from an existence of crime and poverty.

By Uwe Buse in Delhi, India

The train station's iron cupola towers above the huts, houses and bazaars of Delhi's Paharganj neighborhood. Cloth dealers from southern India step off the trains -- families carrying suitcases and jute bags. Tourists from the Far East and from distant Europe throng to the exit like everyone else. In the midst of the crowd stands 20-year-old Shekhar Saini. He's slim, with parted hair slicked to the sides with gel. He talks about his second life. It began right here, by track number 12.

Eight years ago he came to Delhi. A freight train took him from his village of Kalyanpur to the Indian capital on a journey that lasted one day and one night. He had run away from home, fleeing his parents who were poor and unhappy that their second son was already playing cards and drinking at the age of 12. Saini hoped for greater freedom in the big city. That's why he closed the books on his first life. He had dreams of a movie career and a life free of cares. But instead of becoming a star, he became a petty criminal and a glue-sniffer. He was one of the many street children who were always to be seen around the train station in Paharganj -- and who can still be seen there today.

The men and women from the Salaam Baalak Trust led him out of that life. The charitable association was founded by Indian director Mira Nair, who achieved wealth and fame thanks to her film "Salaam Bombay," which tells the story of children living on the streets of India's cities.

The trust runs a hostel not far from the train station. There, Saini found a place to sleep, eat and learn. He also found a job as a tour guide: He gives people from Europe, Japan and the United States -- but also from India -- tours that give them a better idea of the kind of life he used to lead.

A microcosmos

Often he leads groups of three, four or more visitors through the city, but today only one person has shown up. Nevertheless, Saini takes him on his tour through the microcosmos inhabited by the children of Paharganj.

Many arrive in Delhi the way Saini did, by hopping freight trains like modern-day hobos. And many begin their new life with another escape -- that from the police officers at the train station. The officers are charged with inspecting incoming trains -- their cargo platforms, their undercarriage and their roofs for illegal stowaways.

If the children are lucky, they make it to the fence beyond track No. 1. That's where the jurisdiction of the police officers assigned to the train station ends. If the children are unlucky, they run into a pimp, a child trader looking for new victims -- young girls and handsome boys.

If they meet other, more experienced homeless children, life at the train station is explained to them -- for a fee, of course. That's how the new arrivals learn how to make money, where to sleep and how to survive.

A parallel world

Now Saini is standing on track No. 8. Passenger trains grind to a halt, releasing hundreds of travellers. When the stream of people has thinned, Saini points out a half-dozen young boys. They're jumping into the train compartments with plastic bags in hand. They pick up what has been left behind: fruit, vegetables, newspapers, magazines, books, plastic wrappings. The boys race through the compartments and stuff everything into their bags that seems usable -- meaning sellable.

Fruit and vegetables are sold to the fruit vendors with sales stands on the platforms of the train station. Newspapers, magazines and books go straight to the newsagents, and the plastic goes to the recycled goods vendors across the street. They press the plastic into firm bundles and hand the boys a few bills. The fruit vendors and newsagents don't normally give the children money, but they provide them with a place to sleep on the roofs of their sales stands.

When there's nothing to be picked up inside the trains, the boys steal -- alone and in groups. And when there is something to be picked up inside the trains, the boys steal all the same.

A small shed stands by the edge of the tracks, on an elevated gallery. It's the field office of the Salaam Baalak Trust, where the children can wash, eat something, play -- and decide whether or not they want to trade what they call their "freedom" for a place in the hostel, for a school education and rules that need to be followed.

Saini chose this second option. Other boys whom he knew before decided against it. Some are dead now. Others have disappeared. One became a pimp. Another has become the leader of a street gang. He's holding court by the water tank right next to the tracks.

At the end of his tour, Saini charges his fee of €5 ($6.6) and say a donation for the Trust would be "cool." Saini has led 600 visitors through the train station during the past three months, but it is not something he wants to do forever.

He's a persevering lad and he hasn't given up on his dream. He's taking acting and dancing lessons. He still wants to make it into the movies. That's what he told his parents when he visited them recently. They didn't think what he said was nonsense. They thought it was a sensible decision.

They had heard about "Little Terrorist," a film nominated for an Oscar last year -- in the distant United States. The main role is played by a homeless child from Paharganj -- one cared for by the Salaam Baalak Trust.

The boy is said to have given his entire royalties to this family. By doing so, Saini's parents think, he set a good example.

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