Life by traffic light - Delhi's street kids

Can India begin to channel some of the creative energy of its twenty-five million street children? Why don’t school lunch schemes work?
Spriha Srivastava
19 March 2010

As my car came to a halt at a traffic signal on the way to south Delhi, a bunch of children dressed in the shabbiest of clothes came running towards me. One of them tried to sell me a box of tissues while a teenage girl held an infant in her arms and begged for money for his food. I was baffled to see the same thing happen at every traffic signal until I reached my destination.


These are the street children of Delhi, and they display amazing creativity in coming up with ideas to make money. From trying to sell small items to cleaning the car windows, they invent strategies to try and earn something approaching a living. Considerable thinking lies behind every action at the traffic signals. Before coming to the details of their survival strategies, it is important to get an idea of the grave situation India is facing with regard to street children. We might be the biggest democracy in the world, but we are also home to 25 million street children across the country. According to a UNICEF report, almost 40,000 street children die every day in developing countries, and 25 per cent of them are Indians. These children often suffer from malnourishment and have no access to clean drinking water or sanitation. Many do not have access to proper health facilities. They often sleep on pavements, and sometimes you will find an entire family that have spent a few years of their lives under a large expressway or flyover. They change location when police officers drive them away, but once the situation cools down they come back.

The children who work at traffic signals in India are often taught different strategies by their parents or elder brothers and sisters. A seven-year-old boy told me he normally targets expensive looking cars because that’s where he gets some pocket change. He said he never wastes time on small and “middle class” cars.

Such is the mindset of a seven-year-old boy who sells boxes of tissues in the afternoon and sleeps on the street every night in the hope that he will make more money the next day.

Meanwhile, nine-year-old Rashmi, who sells coloured pens for 10 rupees each (20p), said she normally goes to the cars where she can spot children: “It is easy to persuade children because they immediately start crying for it and then their parents have to buy it.” Rashmi told me that their “bade bhaiyya” (Big Brother) got the items for them to sell. They must also give whatever they earn during the day to him. These children often indulge in theft, stealing cell phones or handbags at traffic lights.

They also look forward to Valentine’s Day, when they sell a bunch of roses for 10-15 rupees (20-30p). As soon as the light turns red they run up to every couple, a bunch of roses in their hands. They say things like “didi kitni sundar hai, iske liye le lo na” (she is so beautiful, take it for her). More often than not they are successful, as the guy buys roses for his girl. In just a small area of five traffic signals, children can earn 2,500-3,000 rupees (£55-65) on Valentine’s Day. It is not just business for diamond merchants but for street children as well.

Six-year-old Ankit, who is fascinated with motorbikes, said that weekends are the best time to earn money, so I decided to visit them on a Saturday. A bunch of kids, who had worn the dirtiest of clothes a day before, were suddenly cleaner in comparison. They held in their hands a small steel container filled with oil. On the top of the container was a picture of Shani Dev, the Lord of Saturday, worshipped widely among Hindus. Shani is considered to be a very powerful god. It is said that he gives us the results of our deeds throughout life through appropriate punishments and rewards, so people increasingly believe in giving money on a Saturday to please him. The street children know the significance of Shani Dev in the lives of Hindus, and they use this to earn a living.

As I watched this ‘Saturday Syndrome’ in action, I saw many people succumbing. More and more women would struggle to find some coins in their purses and then put them in the container. One girl, who was busy adjusting the garland on her stainless steel container, told me that each of them make about 70-80 rupees (£1.50-£1.75) by the end of the day, sometimes even 100 rupees (£2.20). While far more than their normal daily earnings, it is still not enough to survive in Delhi.

I asked her what they do with this money. Do they give it to a priest in a temple? “Are you mad? We give it to our parents and they pay to….”  Leaving the sentence unfinished, she ran to the other children. There was so much excitement among them. Each one put their hand inside the container to see how much they had collected so far. 

It was not a pretty sight. But I was impressed by the never-say-die attitude of these children. The methods might be wrong, the act might be wrong but their attitude is not wrong. These children work from morning until evening, eat whatever they can gather from the garbage nearby; sometimes if they are lucky they can find a half-eaten pizza, otherwise they live on dry bread. But when they see the lights turn red they leave everything and run to work.

Numerous non-profit organisations are working to educate these children so they can improve their standard of living. The government has been sponsoring midday meal schemes in schools for children so they are tempted to come and study. But despite having both the right material and the right facilities, we have failed to blend the two together. Only when the creativity of these children is correctly channelled can we hope for a better future for them.

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