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Street kids to child activists

New Delhi, June 26: Vijay Kumar gave a high five minutes after this correspondent entered a large hall in central Delhi milling with children.

Three hours later, when it was time to leave, stories of about a dozen children, who were once child labourers, drug addicts or street urchins, jostled for space.

At a time when the government is planning to review the child labour law so that it is in sync with the Right to Education Act — which promises free and compulsory education for kids between six and 14 — Vijay and his “core committee”, as he puts it, are already trying to do what the Centre is still contemplating.

Vijay leads Badhte Kadam, a federation of 10,000 street and working children, as its national secretary. Until five years ago, he was a junkie.

He claims to have lost the ability to feel pain because of the drugs he took. But an encounter with activists from the NGO Chetna and its federation for children, Badhte Kadam, which started 10 years ago, changed his life. The hall is the federation’s office.

Vijay is now in Class XII at the National Institute of Open School and raring to become a civil servant and take up the cause of children.

“There were times when I didn’t eat any food. I used to survive on drugs and water. I would work day and night in a CD-making factory and make Rs 10 for 12 hours of work. I would cut myself, but the owner of the factory wouldn’t give me bandages or medicines. After I was rescued, I started studying and, as I became an activist, the first thing I did was report the factory and got it raided. We rescued a lot of children,” Vijay says.

The Centre, which has been arguing for a more inclusive child labour law, is planning to change the penalties under the act and make them “cognisable and non-bailable”.

Vijay and his team are, however, not bothered with laws. “Only education can change our lives,” says the 17-year-old.

The leadership of the organisation is elected through a secret ballot and meets once a month to discuss child rights issues which are highlighted in their newspaper, Balaknama, that is published once every three months and boasts of a circulation of 4,000 copies.

The entire team comprises children between 14 and 15 — all of them rescued from the streets by fellow child labourers-turned-activists.

“I used to sell corn cobs at traffic signals in Noida. I would get beaten up by the cops and I would get singed while roasting them. Now, I study a lot. Although I don’t know what I will become, I am just happy to be able to study,” says Chandni, 15, the state secretary of the organisation.

Such is the success rate of these kids in getting children to give up working that Chetna, the NGO which started this programme, has adopted a completely hands-off approach.