A unique city walk in Delhi’s animated neighbourhood of Paharganj is providing employment opportunities to marginalised youth and former street children. Through sustainable tourism, guests can directly support the work of the Salaam Baalak Trust, an organisation working to provide care and protection to street and working children in Delhi, India.
I was guided by 17-year-old Anny, who met me at the starting point for the tour. As I arrived I witnessed another 4 groups of people, each with their own guide. It was positive to see so many people had become aware of this tour and could have the opportunity to get behind such a necessary cause.
I was alone, and so it was just myself and Anny – I had my very own private tour of Delhi. We commenced the tour as Anny took me to a quiet place to explain some background behind the tours and educate me on the topics at hand. One of the first questions Anny posed was regarding my thoughts around street children in India “How do you think many of these children end up on the streets?” she asks. Her question is confronting. I stand there pondering my answer. I had been in India for only 24 hours and had already been exposed to the sights of beggars, rag-pickers and homelessness. Sadly it is not an uncommon sight in India, a chaotic land of inequality and discord. My first instinct is to say “poverty” – a simple blanket word for an exceptionally complex question. I reply with an answer and a heightened awareness that the next few hours will unveil an antagonistic flood of truth and emotion.
Anny precedes to educate me on the plight of street children in Delhi. Nobody knows exactly but it is estimated there are over 50,000 children on the streets of India’s capital. These children find their way into such unfortunate circumstances for many reasons including domestic violence, human trafficking and poverty. The Salaam Baalak Trust was founded in 1988 to help tackle some of these issues and provide support for the street and working children of the inner cities of New Delhi –
“From three staff and 25 children on a balcony of the Ground Reserve Police at the New Delhi Railway station more than 29 years ago, we have now grown to over 200 staff, providing support services for over 9,000 children a year in Delhi & the NCR region through our 22 centres.” – Salaam Balaak Trust
Today, a new social enterprise business model offers city walking tours as a form of income for the organisation, funding three of their contact centres and salaries for staff like Anny. One of these contact centres is a stop for me on the tour, where I learn more about this imperative work and the plans in place to tackle the ongoing social welfare issues for children in India.
A contact centre is essentially a day-care centre, a place where at-risk children can find safety, food and shelter. The centres are monitored by social workers who offer solace, listening to the children’s concerns and flagging any major threats to the relevant authorities. In addition to the 22 contact centres, the Salaam Balaak Trust also funds 7 shelter homes that provide full-time care, life skills training and mental health programs. Anny currently resides in one of these homes. At the end of the tour, she opened up about her own story –
“I have a dim memory of my mother. When I was 5 or 6 years old my mother left me in an orphanage because she couldn’t afford to look after me. Had I been a son, perhaps my life would have turned out differently.”
Women in India face many obstacles because of gender. In rural villages, where communities have yet to embrace modernisation, the birth of a daughter can be considered a burden. “Gender equality is, unfortunately, not yet achieved in our culture” Anny explains. In fact, women face a significantly higher number of threats if they live on the streets. “Some girls will cut their hair to look like boys, in order to avoid being trafficked into prostitution” she continues.
The government and local NGO’s like Salaam Balaak Trust focus on keeping both girls and boys away from these dangers. In 1996 NGO Childline India created a toll-free helpline for children in distress. Salaam Balaak staff intercept over 1500 of these calls annually, providing critical support to those in need.
While this particular walking tour is confronting, it outlines some extremely admirable examples of altruism, and the compassionate human spirit. Not all of Delhi’s approximately 25 million people have been privileged to be born into wealth, and so the Salaam Baalak Trust is doing what they can to support those who haven’t had this privilege. Through the act of sustainable tourism, you too can support those people as well.