I have worked across many parts of the country as a photographer, sometimes with NGOs and sometimes for my own projects. And I’ve photographed many children across the country. But I have always avoided clicking street children.
It is very easy to click children on the streets and post it on Facebook or Instagram. Photographers often even pay them ₹10 or ₹20 to pose for photos. Personally, I do not support this. I am surprised and disgusted with such photographers. After all, when you click a street child, do you even think about their privacy or their future? No. Mostly, you do not even ask their names.
But when this assignment came along, I decided to take it up. Almost two years on, I went to click photos of street children in Kolkata. The idea was to capture the city through the experiences of children on the streets. On the positive side, it is challenging to find “street children” in my city. The situation has certainly changed compared to a few years ago, and it feels great to see changes through my lens.
On the downside though, there are no official statistics on the number of children in street situations, in the first place. It’s difficult to officially gauge whether the situation has improved then, or just better camouflaged. Their tendency to be floating characters too, gets in the way of making official estimates. And without official estimates, it is impossible to address this issue. Because the city is not just lacking empathy, but in situations, can be absolutely hostile towards children, especially girls.With 4-6 children in a family living below the poverty line, toys are a luxury many cannot afford. Without any other option, a little child collected a damaged doll from trash to play with.This trio, living under a foot overbridge in Moulali area in central Kolkata, is walking back after buying food. They tell me that their families force them to beg for money near Sealdah railway station every day and they buy their food with what they get. Some days, they work up till 8 in the night, before they can afford a meal to take back to their “homes”.
This boy, Raju, works with a network of beggars near Manicktala in Kolkata, for survival. He tells me, “I work on three signals between Maniktala and Rajabazar. We have areas allotted by team leaders.” When I asked him how much he earns, he said up to ₹150 sometimes. It’s said that there is more than one group in Kolkata that operates networks of child beggars, where children beg and deposit whatever they make with a team leader. The children get only a small share of the money they make.
Near CIT Road in Kolkata, a hungry Saif is taking care of his younger brother, and waiting for his mother to return and cook for them. They don’t have a permanent home. His father works in local fast food shop and his mother works as domestic worker.This is Chhotu, a child I have known for two years now. A ragpicker’s son, he works in a roadside tea stall at Lenin Sarani at this tender age. From what he tells me, his family has relocated for shelter thrice in the last two years and now lives under a passenger shed at Wellington, where I found him, by chance.This is Ayush, posing for my camera. He says he goes to corporation school and reads in class one. His family lives at Vivekananda road in Kolkata. When I asked his mother about her profession and earnings, she became hostile, because they are afraid and full of insecurities: constantly concerned that they will get evicted. In recent times, they’ve found it hard to find shelter with some semblance of permanence, because of the expansion of the Kolkata Metro Rail.
The situation in my city is changing though. Fewer children can be spotted on the streets. A shop owner in College Street Market tells me, “Most of the children on the streets are now going to school. This happened because of interventions by various NGOs and Kolkata Municipal Corporations.”
Many street children are still employed in scavenging for recyclable materials, such as plastic, paper, and metal. Other jobs include begging, selling of balloons, selling flowers, working in small roadside hotels. But sometimes, they are enrolled into school, and books, dresses and shoes. The sad thing is, many can’t complete their education because of crippling financial circumstances.One of the most inspiring people I found while photographing for this project is Ria. Sitting on the footpath at College Street, she is completing her homework before the sun sets. She says, “I read in class three, and I have to my tasks now because we don’t have access to light at night.” Along with her studies, Ria is also taking care of her younger sibling, until her mother returns from work.
One day, I hope to see a Kolkata, which has no street children. And it’s an achievable reality if we can cumulatively work to give such children homes and families.