When I first visited India in 2009, I could not but notice the number of street children hanging around in the markets, commercial centres and crossroad junctions, picking rags, polishing shoes, selling various items, performing tricks or begging. Every place we ate at had one or two little boys cleaning dishes; every place we slept at had a bunch of chotus (colloquial term in Hindi meaning “little boy”) doing chores; every crossroad we stopped at had little knuckles knocking on our car window and offering something to buy. They were little brave human beings fighting for their existence in the only way they knew, with the only way they had: on the streets. They were little brave human beings with their existence reminding us that something has gone really wrong with the way our society functions.

The phenomenon of street children is not characteristic of India alone. The problem is global and it is escalating, and even developed nations are not exempt from it. Yet, it was in India where the presence of the problem struck me the most. Probably because of its immensity and impossibility to hide from – it was lingering in every corner and in every form. Those little busy hands and eyes that did not convey any signs of childhood were hard to avoid even if one tried hiding under the shadow of ignorance.

Why are they so many here, in India? Historical conditions, societal attitudes and governmental policies play an important role in creating economic marginality. Unequal wealth distribution and questionable developmental policies shouldn’t be excluded from the list of causes. Directly related to that, rural to urban migration is another important factor, and although much has been done to improve the situation, the educational system does not function yet the way it should and hence the children are on the streets. Family background, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, intoxicating substance abuse, abandonment and neglect, running away from stressful situations, and so on, and so on – all these factors should be taken into consideration when trying to understand why there are children on the streets here, in India and everywhere else in the world.

These are theoretical mantras learnt in Western academic surroundings that rush in through one’s head when trying to find the answer to WHY. Here you go: the picture, logical and rational explanations. Right?

However the picture would never be complete if street children, fighting for their existence in inhumane conditions, are not given a voice and are not heard. Their stories matter. They are the stories that matter. Of course those stories are not without their own problems.

During my trip, I would sometimes talk to these brave little human beings. But it was never easy. Not only because they were stories of the children suffering. Those stories were constantly prompting more complex questions. I was listening, never knowing how much of those stories were true and how many were fabrication. How much of the real situation was hidden from me. I could only sense the truth. I was a stranger not to be trusted, a face of the society that has failed to protect them.

Lewis Aptekar (1992) correctly noted that the way street children present information about themselves is part of their survival skills. On one hand, it is a way to get back at society that devalues them, and on the other, such manipulations keep society at bay about the details of their lives. Children know that the narrative of their respectives stories is a strategy that needs to be wisely employed. And this indeed makes the issue of whether many of those stories were true less important. What matters is the unwrapping of the WHY.

I have to admit that quite often I was struggling to hear what children had to say as I had to always question my own background and how much it was affecting my interpretation when, for example, hearing a street child saying: “I ran away from everything to gain the freedom of my life. I like what I am doing now”. It would always bring instant disbelief to my mind, and I would have to stop to consider the reasons behind such statements and WHY such freedom was above everything to some of these children.

Such considerations would work as a reminder that no child on the street is the one and the same, although their histories might share some recognisable patterns. In his research on Brazil’s street children, Mark W. Lusk discerned four categories of those patterns (1992):

1) poor working children returning to their families at home. Those children were likely to attend school and were not engaging in any illicit activity;

2) children were independent street workers. Those children were less likely to attend school and tended to be engaging in illicit activities. Their family ties were beginning to break down;

3) children who lived and worked with their families on the street – pavement dwellers;

4) children who were living on the streets full-time and were the real street children. The trafficked and bonded children are merged into the latter category. They are the real ones.

Any kind of categorisation is supposed to help promote our understanding. Yet, one should always keep in mind that categorisation is a very manipulative tool that is employed depending on whether exaggeration or underestimation would serve the purpose of who and what needs to be counted in, or left out.

Street children in India working in and around the streets in the unorganised sector are all real and should be counted in.

Indeed, when I was in India, I had the constant urge to close my eyes and beg: God, let it be just a dream, a very bad dream. But it was not: it was a reality in its worst form – the abuse and neglect of children, the reminder that somewhere we have failed as humanity.