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Just A Call Away...
Text by Deepali Nandwani and Photographs by Swapnil Nadkarni
Published: Volume 14, Issue 4, July-August, 2006

Exploited, vulnerable and lonely children - across 70 Indian cities - call 1098 for help and the phones at the toll free helpline never stop ringing. DEEPALI NANDWANI spends time with Kajol Menon, executive director, Childline India Foundation, as the Mumbai-based emergency service celebrates ten years of its existence

Twenty-something Rajesh's life is a huge success story in more ways than one. The small-built youth who thinks he resembles actor, Rajpal Yadav, runs an organisation called Pukar. It may have no fixed address but it does make an honest attempt to acquire one for the kids on the streets, by getting them the essential documents: ration cards, pan numbers and such. This former street kid also works as a production boy at film units, "earning enough," he says, "for me to be able to spend some money out of my pocket on these boys."

For Childline India Foundation, the 24-hour, toll free, emergency helpline for children in distress, which works both ways - as a phone service and through direct intervention, at the grass roots - Rajesh epitomises the turnaround that can take place in the life of every exploited, vulnerable child. "He was one of the first kids to get in touch with Childline. He had been behind bars several times in small robbery cases, before he approached one of our centres. He would sit around and watch our phone counsellors talk to children who called in," recalls Kajol Menon, the organisation's plucky executive director.

We are at the Dadar centre, watching an animated bunch of bright-eyed, enthusiastic children, who range from eight to 19 years of age, rehearsing for Childline's celebration of its ten years of existence. It was on June 2, exactly a decade ago, that the first phone bell rang at one of their centres. Rajesh is directing the entire production, which spawns a small drama, some music and loads of shimmying and shaking to largely popular Hindi film numbers. There is 12-year-old Prashant, who travelled all the way from Kalyan just to be part of this little group. For nine-year old Sunny, participating in the celebrations was a means of discovering new friends.

It's a small, yet raucous, gathering and Menon is obviously enjoying herself. This is a rare trek out of the head office, when she isn't actually dealing with some kind of crisis. "I love the energy they exude, their enthusiasm and the shine in their eyes," she smiles. And then, a little sadly, "Our biggest tragedy is when we see the shine turn dull. Either reality takes over or substance abuse wrecks havoc. Sometimes we lose kids, who we think have turned around, to drugs or AIDS."

Increasingly, the tragic tales are few and far between. Set up in Mumbai by Jeroo Billimoria (featured earlier in Verve, October 2000), as a field project for the Tata Social Services, it was dismissed by most as 'too Western' in concept. Who had ever heard of a helpline for children in distress? Given the reality of this country, where street children were uneducated, too busy struggling for survival and wary of almost everyone, only direct intervention would work!

Yet at the last count, 1098, the number that works as a lifeline for vulnerable kids across 70 Indian cities, had received 9.5 million calls. If Childline works with street kids in Mumbai, in states like Bihar, their callers are overexploited, overworked and abused child labourers and in Goa, they are innocent victims of paedophilia. "The organisation, instead of setting up expensive infrastructure, partners more than 100 other NGOs at the grass roots," says Menon. "We set up our phone lines in their centres or in government schools. We send our volunteers through them for offline help." At the basic level, Childline volunteers ensure that speedy aid reaches every kid who calls in, especially in emergencies like accidents or abuse. After the devastating tsunami hit India and other parts of Asia, they set up helplines in the affected areas and then went to smaller islands to ferret out children and people in need of emergency help. At a macro level, they work with government organisations, like health and police authorities. Interestingly, Billimoria, the founder, now heads Childline International.

To know more about Childline India Foundation, log on www.childlineindia.org.in