Beggars for Life

There ought to be a law that children can’t beg after ten o’clock at night!  There ought to be another law that NGO’s can’t use children to beg for their funds.  

There is a fine line between children on the street begging for food or money, and children in orphanages taken around, like kids in the US on Halloween, begging for clothes for the pujos —  That line was crossed last night after ten, when three children and their orphanage director came looking for money for “watches, shirts, jeans, and shoes.”

I know these children.  I know their director.  I’ve helped them out financially before.  I stopped when I could not get any accountability.  I have been able to get some services for the children, but financially I have said no.  I keep saying no.  I keep being asked.  A week ago I said no.    Four days ago she came for money and I said no.    But last night she got me.  She brought the kids, holding their hands out, looking very sad as she had them do their begging act.  I gave her Rs. 1000, about $20, far less than she had demanded.  I did it for the boys, who know me as someone who helped them.  I took pity on them and that overruled my anger at her.  It was already after ten and they had at least an hour’s journey home, although she did say they still had another stop to make.

These boys were beggars on the streets and in the rail stations, and now they beg for their orphanage.  This is their only achievement.  They don’t excel at sports because they have none.  They don’t excel at education because they have none.  They don’t excel at work because they have none.     This is the Indian government’s version of child protection and rehabilitation.  But it’s also a social and cultural pattern.

This is the season of extortion here.  Local “clubs” set up pandals, temporary temples to Goddess Durga.  These clubs raise money by assessing residents and asking for donations.    It’s one of the rules of life here that you do not say no, because people get killed that way.  There is never any accountability over that money either.  I’ve heard that the same goonda who demanded and got extortion money from me to open Shishur Sevay, also stole all the Puja money one year from his club.

But let’s come back to a central question, the difference between how India could take care of its orphan children and how India does take care of its orphan children.    Government homes receive funds from the State and the Central government, supposed to be 10% from the State, 90% from the Central Government, but the 90% doesn’t come until AFTER the State puts in 10%.  So, as is the case of West Bengal the State has not fulfilled its commitment, the 90% is not coming.   The people who run these homes are expected to raise the funds, hopefully from foreigners.  Foreigners have soft hearts and don’t like to see hungry or sick children.  It’s all a game because the people running these homes know from the start what to expect, know they will have to raise the money on their own.  So they become like government fund raisers, developing their networks to feed money into India to feed the Indian children India will not feed.

So you take the children who were begging on the street, all the better if they have disabilities, and put them into government homes where they can put these skills to better use, namely begging for the money that the government promises but doesn’t deliver.  When I adopted my infant daughter from Kolkata in 1984 I wondered what happened to the children who are not adopted.  The sad answer I’ve learned… not much good happens to them.

Kolkata: A Wall of Resistance

To make something happen in Kolkata, you have to look for cracks in the wall, work quickly, and get out before the crack closes.  I’m not talking about the usual corruption, bribes, money under the table.  Those are paths, not cracks, and each has its price and conditions.  The cracks are more about what is not expected, feats of perceived impossibility.  It’s how we got the kids.  We found a crack, and got them before this route was closed again.  But most of the time we are hitting the wall.  When I took eight children by ambulance to the Child Welfare Committee and said they needed care, we were told there are no facilities available, take them back.  We found places for three that day; the others went back.  It was a wall, with no shame.  Walls have no shame.

The following are pictures taken over the past ten years here in Kolkata, where time stands still and the walls get thicker.

Infected scabies infestation of child in a licensed home 2004

Infected scabies of the hand of a different child in a different licensed home 2012

Time stands still.  Conditions at the first home above were reported to the Department of Social Welfare, Department of Education, and the Human Rights Commission as girls there were being severely abused, and were not attending school.  Everything was documented.

In the case of the first picture, I was sponsoring this child at the “orphanage” as it was called.  I was asked to sponsor her as her mother was severely mentally ill and in and out of the hospital.  The grandmother had been taking care of her but found it hard.  What a delightful little girl she was.  I paid Rs. 1200 a month, roughly $25.  When I saw her hand I INSISTED a doctor be called.  The doctor came.  The little girl called him Uncle.  I learned she was actually the child of his servant and he wanted the child out-of-the-way.  The doctor owns a nursing home, a private school, and is a known expert in his field.  I said to him, “So you are a wealthy doctor and I, the foreign lady is supporting the child of your servant?”  He grinned and said yes.  No shame, that’s what I find over and over, no shame.

2006 I visited an adoption orphanage run by people who knew people I knew, and we “stopped by.”  I had already been told that the children were kept tied to their cribs, so I was curious as to whether we would be invited in.  We were invited in, and asked to sit for a while.  I figured they had gone to untie the kids.  But no…

Baby tied to crib, straining to look too.  Sometimes she rocked so hard I worried the crib would go over.

Three point restraint, plus around her waist. Her crib is too small for her to stretch out which I learned when I tried to examine her liver. She was Hepatitis B+ and considered non-adoptable.

And when these children are adopted, and they act strange, no one will know what they have been through, how they have lived, what they have missed.

This home’s license had expired and had not been renewed.  I showed these pictures and others to several government officials.  The home received its license and was scolded for letting me take pictures.  There is no shame.

I tried to buy these children, and I think came close to success.  We were negotiating…. For a long time I kept their pictures with me, kept two spaces for them.  I heard several different stories about their fate, so all I can tell is that I was not being told the truth, because not all the different stories could have been true.

Our children arrived at Shishur Sevay in February 2007 from a government home, with infected scabies, malaria, and bleeding gums.   There were no records of immunizations and none were given during their time in government care.  We immunized them at Shishur Sevay.  I had trouble getting them immunized for polio because most of the girls were over five years.  The doctor said, “Over five even if they get polio it will be mild.”  The government scheme only goes to five years.  I had it done privately.

It’s easy to be a critic, harder to find solutions.  When we started Shishur Sevay we needed a way to contain and protect our little ones — and so I had two “play pens” built.  That’s really the best way to describe them.  And I thought, “This is easy.  Why didn’t they do that instead of tying the children?”  It’s a mindset.  The children were inventory.  It didn’t matter if they were tied up.  In fact, several officials were impressed with the weight of the children.  “Necessary but not sufficient”

Why do I write this when “everyone knows?”  I write because I have hope; I always have hope.  And I write because I cannot be silent about what I see.  I also write to show my credentials for what I am doing here, not the past achievements of my life before India, but the sweat equity I have put into looking for solutions for the unwanted children.  I’ve been at this since 2000.  I’ve been up against that wall over and over, and sometimes I’ve found cracks, more often I’ve not, but each attempt has been a lesson.  I’ve learned to lose battles and come back a different way, a different strategy.  I like to think of myself as a good loser.

I started Shishur Sevay with a fantasy of showing what could be done and then shaming the government into doing something.  But I think the government is more like that wealthy doctor whose servant’s child I supported.  There is no shame.

I know there are others also trying so I write to reach out to them, to find them.  Maybe they will have ideas, and maybe they will be able to do things to make it better for the children. Maybe we will just all weep together at Kolkata’s wall of resistance, or better yet we will all go hunting for the cracks, and putting in wedges to keep them open, and celebrating each time we are successful.

Hello?

Sending Food for Aunty’s Children

Aunty sent an auto-rickshaw for supplies yesterday morning.  That’s it parked in the lane in front of Shishur Sevay.  I sent Bijoy to the store and we bought rice and other staples that should last about five days.   

We sent rice, Maggie Noodles, Dal, Chana Dal, eggs, powdered milk formula for babies, neutrala, a soy product, chira (flattened flaked rice) potatoes, and sattoo (powdered chhana).  The cost was Rs. 3889, or USD about $80.

I’m planning to visit there tomorrow.  I’m bringing someone from a home that is considering taking one of the severely disabled boys.  It’s a good home, like ours, and we do this by keeping the number of children within our resources. Knowing our limitations is one of the most important components of success.  Saying no is painful.  So, we live with that, and once in a while we find reason to stretch a bit.

The biggest obstacle to feeding the children is an attitude by the staff that because the children are so starved, you cannot give them much food of they will vomit and have diarrhea.  So, they let them be hungry.  I cant’ seem to get past this with anyone!  I’ve tried to de-worm them but so far it hasn’t happened.  I’ve suggested frequent small meals but that hasn’t happened.  I brought two dozen bananas the day we took the sickest ones to CWC, and the bananas were still in the office at night.  One day I was told that the boys have an “emotional” problem over food.  I said it’s called starvation.

I know it is painful reading this, as it is painful living it.  There are problems with the government and problems in the home.  And no one cares!  The best chance those kids have now, the ones I can’t place, is in that home — if we can manage the problems.  If we can’t, I still don’t know.  Over the weekend I talked with friends here and heard terrible stories about other places they knew.  One friend said, ‘The government doesn’t care if they live.”

Lots of thoughts in my head, and probably some of the same in your heads.   Tomorrow is another day.  I’m so totally swamped with work at Shishur Sevay, but I’ll go to see the children at Aunty’s.  Balance in my life? Nope, and not yet time to rest.

We Hired An Ambulance

How long do we wait for “something to happen?”  We hired an ambulance to take us to Aunty’s, pick up the sickest children, and take them to CWC.

I insisted we take them into the building.

The waiting area was interesting, as usual.  The kidnapped girl was there again, and she really smiled when she saw me.  The adoption people were back, this time with a mother whose husband had died.  She was giving up her two children so they could have a better education.  The little one in her arms was about two.  The older girl looked about ten or eleven.  I tried to figure out how this agency was going to insure their education and “better lives”.  These were the same people who had given Aunty two children with disabilities, and they had stopped paying sponsorship.

We were called into the room.  The Committee was clearly uncomfortable with the children there.  They kept saying, “The children should go out.  They will be happier, and I in my cheerful little way said, “Oh that’s ok, they are fine.”  We were there about three hours.  Many phone calls were made.  The Committee said we would have to take the children back to Aunty’s.  They were quite horrible to Aunty, but they had no solutions other than sending the children back home with her.

Maggie tries to tell the CWC that 25 years ago she was this child, but they aren’t listening. 

I  asked the Committee, “Are you saying there is no government place for children with disabilities?”

“No, there is no place for these children.”  I was shocked at this admission.

I said, “But you are the highest authority.  What do we do?”

They told us that in a week there would be a large delegation of legislators planning to visit Aunty’s home and they should give funds.

“But what if they don’t?  What happens then to the children?”

One of the Committee members seemed to get it.  She was back on the phone.  I was asked to make a plea to the Sister at Mother Teresa’s.  I did.  Two children would be accepted there on a temporary basis.  I chose the two weakest, thinnest, and sent them in our ambulance.   Seema and Aunty took them to Mother Teresa’s, but just for a temporary basis.   We waited around as more calls were made.  Bijoy watched some of the children out in the hall.

Soon another group of people showed up, a kind of rescue group, and they arranged for the child with the head infection to be admitted to a hospital.  So one group went in their big ambulance back to Aunty’s.  Bijoy took our group home.  Seema and I went in our ambulance to the hospital with the sick boy with the head infection.  This evening Seema and I went to see him in the hospital.

We aren’t sure where he will be going when he is better.

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