Srishti Bhardwaj on the children who have turned to substance abuse to combat poverty and neglect

 “My friends initiated me into drugs, I was 10 at the time. I used to live near Jama Masjid at the time and substances were easily available. We never faced any problem buying any kind of substances off shops nearby. I am 14 now and I do tube, cannabis, beedi, smack…mostly anything I can get my hands on. I don’t go to school, I am not educated, I am underage and I don’t have a job. To earn money, sometimes I would get on trains and steak purses and mobiles. I was caught many times and was beaten up before I ended up in a police station. The policemen had a stick with the words, “Aao Milo Sajna” (Come, Meet Your Love), they would oil it and beat us with it. The whole night spent in a police station was torturous, but my need for drugs was strong and I couldn’t give up the habit. It’s an endless cycle now. We end up there, they beat us, we are released the next day and it begins again,” says *Varun.

According to a survey conducted by the Delhi Aids Control Society in 2017, the number of street children who abused a substance in one year was 23,240. Based on statistical calculation, 95 per cent of the certainty estimate varied between 19,320 to 27,090 children. The survey is further broken up as follows—tobacco users, 20,000 children; Alcohol users, 9,450 children; Inhalants, 7,910 children; Cannabis, 5,600 children, Opioids + sedatives, 210 children. Few children also admitted to injecting themselves with drugs. In a similar survey, jointly conducted by the Women and Child Development Department & AIIMS (2016), there are 70,000 addicts on the streets of Delhi, most of who are initiated into substance abuse by the time they are nine years old.

Substance abuse amongst street children has patterns that are similar across the demographic—poverty, lack of a support system, violence at home and easy availability of drugs at home. Take the instance of 10-year-old *Richa who can be found loitering in a posh south Delhi market on most days, relying on the mercy of strangers to get her food and money. Richa used to go to school, but since her father is an alcoholic and a mother who is trying hard to makes end meet, she now has to resort to begging. Most days she dresses as a boy to keep herself safe and dreams of hill stations, “I want to move there because I feel it will be a clean place and I have heard stories that they are really beautiful, maybe when I am older,” she says, her eyes glazed over, with a far-away expression. Richa says her mother has put her on a budget, she has to bring home Rs. 900 every day, “If I fail to do so, my mother beats me up,” she says. “I wasted my entire day today, I went to a park and slept, then I was playing and then I did some ganja, (weed)” she giggles, “please give me some money or please at least buy me some food,” she pleads.

“I was 7 years old when I started smoking beedi. I lived with my mother and my elder brother who was also an addict. My father passed away soon after my birth and since then my mother took care of both of us. When I turned 8, I picked up fevibond. Unfortunately, all my friends were also addicted to several drugs. Since then I haven’t stopped. My mother has sent me to the rehab centres so many times. I stop for a month and as soon as I return home, my body and my senses crave for the drugs. My mother is hurt when she sees me smoking and sniffing. But I can’t help myself. My uncle has given electric shocks to me at home using a naked wire. Even then I did not quit. Instead I ran away from home. I’ve been running from myself for a long time now.”

The existing studies on drug addiction amongst street children usually focus on boys, based on the general assumption that drug abuse amongst girls is much lower. Based on cases like Richa, it can safely be assumed that this is not the case. Sumitra Pradhan, a social worker, who works exclusively with drug addicted street children and acts as a liaison officer between them and NGOs, this is because the girl problem is usually hidden and there is limited access to them, “most of these girls work as prostitutes and rag pickers and even though they seem mobile, access to them is very limited. They are usually controlled by their parents or some male in their life and heavily instructed on how to deal with authorities and social intervention. They are more conscious and hard to crack,” she says.

Richa, for instance says that even though there are many women and men who have tried to intervene and better her situation, she is often distrusting of them. “At the end of the day, all of them want me to sit in a car and take me places. How can I trust them? How do I know that they will not make my situation worse? At least now I know that at the end of the day, I will go home to my family,” she says.

When asked if she would like to be photographed, Richa runs away.

In a drug bust in February 2017, in the slum area of Seemapuri, out of the 18 users apprehend, two were minors. A police investigation further revealed that the gang which was peddling smack, specifically targeted young children. The investigation also revealed another alarming fact, that the parents of the children using were aware that their child was addicted to substances.

Although a large number of privately owned de-addiction centres exist in the capital, there are only five de-addiction centre in the capital that are run through government funding. Legally, The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (which replaced the JJ Act, 2000) does address the need of children addicted to drugs. It has clear definitions on “children in need of care and protection,” this includes children inducted into drug abuse or trafficking. It also includes children that are found to be living on the streets, living with unfit parents and begging. Section 31 of The Juvenile Justice Act, (The JJ Act) 2015, mandates that a child that is found to be in need of care should be taken care of via the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) within 24 hours. For this, the state government has been mandated to have a CWC in each district. The JJ Act, 2015, further mandates that once a child is in care of the CWC, a social investigation report needs to be prepared within 15 days. After which, it is their duty to provide appropriate rehabilitation, including ensuring  de-addiction programmes.

“I started with bond (fevi bond, a synthetic rubber based adhesive). I was in school that time. There were students elder to me who taught me how to use substance. I used to live in Firozabad. At times, I smoked beedi and right after that I used to vomit. My situation was severe and to buy substance, I had to beg in front of Nizammuddin Dargah. Once I got enough money I bought a container full of bond and return back to my own fantasy world. No matter what, I needed it. Each day, every minute. I remember, one day I was on the streets cycling, I was so high that the world seemed to spin and the next thing I can think of is I was hit by a car and fell off on the road. The car ran over me and I got stitches near my eye.”

The CWS which fall under the purview of Ministry of Women and Child Development are therefore the only hope for these drug addled children. Following the most recent statistics on drug abuse, the juvenile justice board has directed the Delhi state government to look into the matter on a priority basis.

Dr. Sanjana Malhotra who works with juveniles at a privately managed de-addiction centre in Central Delhi says, that children drug users are easier to treat than adults who have battled the addiction for years. “Although I must re-instate that their rehabilitation is a priority. If they end up in the same environment that they were in before they ended up here. Then chances are that they will pick up the same habits all over again. It is important that they be looked as children who didn’t get a fair chance at life.”


*Names have been changed to protect privacy. With inputs from Anoop Sharma and Policy Brief on Drug Abuse Amongst Street Children In Delhi. 

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