IN THE CITY OF JOY
‘Does a polythene shack on
a footpath count as a home?’
Some are runaways. Some are lost. Some have fled abuse and incest at home. They come from all over India. But when you ask them to draw something from memory,
they usually draw the same thing.
“They always draw a house,” says Shipra
Bandopadhyay. She works at CINI Asha,
which is the urban institute of the Child in
Need Institute. CINI was set up in 1974 by
Dr S N Chaudhuri, a pedatrician who wanted to improve the lives of poor rural children and provide ante-natal and post-natal
care for their mothers. But in the early
1990s Dr Chaudhuri noticed children
roaming around the platforms of Sealdah
station in the heart of Kolkata. Some were
children of the platform vendors, some
“He asked them what do you want to be
and some said police, others said teacher
or pilot,” says Manidipa Ghosh, assistant
director, CINI-Asha. Dr Chaudhuri
thought a drop-in center close to the sta-
tion, where the children could pick up
some non-formal education might be use-
ful. “We slowly realized there were other
needs,” says Ghosh. “Recreation. Trauma
counseling. Bathing facilities. A night
Ghosh’s office is off a busy street in
Central Kolkata. Trams trundle past, bells
clanking. Student election posters festoon a
college up the street. Large chunks of the
sidewalk are taken up by shanties, blue tarp
roofs eking out a few square feet of living
space. Many of the children who come to
CINI Asha come off these streets. Some
come from Kolkata’s suburbs. Some from
small towns far away. Increasingly many
are tribal children who show up not know-
ing any local language. Ghosh says she
doesn’t want to give out numbers of how
many children are homeless in Kolkata.
Even the notion of homelessness varies
from researcher to researcher. “Does a poly-
thene shack on a footpath count as a
home?” she asks.
Above Ghosh’s office is CINI Asha’s short
stay home for girls who have been found on
the streets. Homes for boys exist in different facilities. Short stay might mean
overnight. It can be as long as three months
before the Child Welfare Committee
decides whether they can be rehabilitated
or placed in a home.
There’s a chart on the wall with big cheerful flowers that outlines their day.
Brushing teeth: 6:45 am – 7 am
Bathroom and dress: 7:15 am – 8:15 am.
There are paintings on the blue walls of
peacocks and princesses, rainbows and
rocking horses. It looks like just another
day care center. Except the chart on the
wall has neat columns marked Missing,
Runaway, Abandoned at Shelter.
Two little girls are engrossed in a game of
All that the kids at Kolkata’s CINI Asha shelter
want is a real home, discovers Sandip Roy
The CINI Asha shelter
carom. One comes up shyly and grins. She
tells me she is two. Bandopadhyay, who
looks after the girls says she’s actually
around seven. She’s been here two months,
a missing child. If her family can’t be found,
she’ll have to be placed in a home.
“I have a doll,” the little girl tells me
solemnly. “I like to play cooking-cooking. I
make tea. With tea leaves and milk.” Her
carom-mate comes out, impatient to get
back to the game. An older girl keeps
touching my elbow. “Brother, do you have a
house? Take me with you,” she says.
“They keep asking when they will go back
home,” says Bandyopadhyay. But home is a
tricky concept for these children.
Counselors have to find out why the chil-
dren left in the first place. Some were aban-
doned by parents. Some want to go to
school, but the parents see no value in that.
Some might say they want to go home, but
when it comes time to go home they balk.
“Even if the parents want to bring them
home, but the children don’t want to go, we
don’t let them go,” says Bandyapadhyay.
Sandip Roy is an editor and radio journalist
with New America Media, currently based in