Charbagh station has no child workers, thanks to Shachi Singh and her Ehsaas
Ten years ago, a young woman came across a boy at the Charbagh railway station in Lucknow. Aged around 10, the boy, dressed in tatters, his face streaked with mud, tried to sell her a bottle of water. "It was tap water poured into a plastic bottle bearing a mineral water label. A few minutes later, after he had moved away, I saw a policeman brutally thrashing him," recalls Shachi Singh, who is now in her 30s.
That day, Singh decided to do something for children deprived of their childhood and forced to work in the most inhuman conditions. And she did it by setting up Ehsaas, an organization that works with children living on the streets or railway stations, after completing her Masters in Social Work.
Smiles of freedom: Shachi Singh with the children rescued from the Lucknow Railway Station (Photos: WFS)
After years of toiling, she and her team have ensured that the same Charbagh railway station became the first station in the country to be declared ‘child-labour free’.
"Ehsaas was formed in 2002 as we wanted to have a platform where we could work on rights of those children who are out of home. This helped to focus on children living on footpath and in railway stations. We not only wanted them to have a decent life, but also a life free from the fear of the police, who invariably vented their frustration on these kids," says Singh.
Sonu, one of the many children rescued by Singh, says: "I belong to Jharkhand and ran away from home. I used to sell bottles of water on the station when 'Didi' (elder sister) met me. It was she who forced me to leave this work and study. Shachi didi even ensured that the police didn't beat me up anymore." Sonu now lives in Ehsaas's shelter home for children.
Singh's organisation has rescued over 100 children once living at the Lucknow station and on the streets in the city. Through education, vocational training, counseling and other such activities, efforts have been made to rehabilitate these youngsters and bring them into the mainstream. Wherever possible, there is also a conscious attempt to reunite the children with their families.
But all this did not happen overnight. It's been a difficult journey - for the activist as well as the rescued children. When the organisation first started taking the kids off the platforms and the streets, they would run away, fearing that they would be caught and beaten up. "We had to make them understand that we are their friends. There were times when we had to fight with the police to save the children," recalls Neeraj, who works with Singh in Ehsaas.
Sensitising the cops: Shachi Singh with personnel of the Government Railway Police at a training session
But this breakthrough was just a modest start. There were many more troubles in store for the team. "The personnel from the Government Railway Police (GRP) as well as the Railway Protection Force were apprehensive about our work. They thought we were intruding into their territory. Not only did they just refuse to talk to us, they even threatened us," says Neeraj.
It was then that Singh decided that if she needed to make the life of children on the platforms better, she would need to make the railway police force conscious of the fact that even these children had rights and needs.
In 2010, Singh managed to rope in Additional Director General of the GRP, A.K. Jain, to help in the project. "We told him how the police was being brutal to the kids and how child rights protected each and every child who lived on the street as well. He heard us out and allowed us to hold regular sensitising sessions with his men on duty at the Lucknow station. In fact, with his orders in hand, we were able to ensure that at least the personnel heard us out," Singh says.
In April, Singh was able to achieve what she had set out to do nearly a decade ago. Today, the Lucknow station is completely child labour free. The GRP has also created a child-friendly booth for lost children and across the 72 districts of Uttar Pradesh, GRP officials have been given additional responsibility as Child Welfare Officers. - Women's Feature Service