Wo to khatam ho gayi !!!

I’VE BEEN ASSOCIATED with Saksham, a small NGO that runs a primary school for underprivileged children in Nithari village for some years now and if you ask me to describe the whole range of my experiences in one word, I would say ‘humbling’.

Nithari is a village on the Delhi-UP border which gained instant notoriety after the discovery of the gruesome murders of little children. Saksham started work there years before that incident and this has, in a way, been reason for guilt being a permanent part of one’s psyche now. For one knows that it easily could have been avoided if the rest of us, ensconced in our individual comfort traps, had paid heed.

Poverty is graded in a basti like Nithari. There are those who have a regular monthly income, like a guard in a security agency, an attendant in a hospital or school or a peon in a factory or office. Then there are those families where the father works as a rickshaw puller and the mother is a housemaid. Here, the combined household income would be Rs 6,000-7,000. But much of what the man earns will be wasted on alcohol. Any illness that needs hospitalisation throws them into debt traps with interest rates from moneylenders being as high as 10 percent per month.

The women and the children in this strata are the worst hit. One had always heard about this, but reality hit home for me when, one day, a kid came to school with pinkish welts on the hands and face and explained it away by saying, “Papa ne daaru peeke mara tha”. I squirmed inside, not knowing how to respond and feeling helpless and guilty knowing that he would go back home and undergo the same trauma. Once, I spotted one of the children bending down near an open drain, arm deep in the dirty black water, trying to retrieve a five-rupee coin. Jokingly, I asked him to let it be. He replied by saying he would be beaten up at home if he did that. Unthinkingly, one would begin teaching them a poem or a song or the importance of nutrition and the word ‘breakfast’ would have to be explained. Some kid would look at you, unblinkingly, and tell you that they only had tea in the morning and that they would eat only after their mother got back from work and cooked something. Why didn’t the women cook something for the children? Well, for one thing, we want our maids in our houses as early as possible to cook for us, don’t we? Plus, they could afford only two meals.

Pre and post the incident that had brought it into the limelight, the summers at Nithari have been oppressive. The children’s faces would break out in huge red boils, covering their neck and arms; the women of migrant families, mostly working as maids, would grow weary from the tedious work and the long walks from the kothis in the nearby sectors. The kids, both of their parents out to earn a living, are still left to their own. The older one, eight or nine years of age, would have to look after the younger siblings. For someone with a perverted bent of mind, luring and victimising children in a crowded basti like Nithari is not very difficult. What was really alarming was the proximity of the residence where the murders took place to the main road, flanked by similar houses on either side and a line of small shops a little further away. Alarming, for it spoke of a community too preoccupied with their own selves to even notice anything out of the ordinary happening around us.

The mood now, as it was back then, is of total mistrust of the systems in place. None of them really cater to the welfare of the residents and are mostly inaccessible and insensitive to their needs. For this strata, trauma is not a one time affair, it is a leitmotif in their saga for survival, immunity to this being built in even as kids. So the tone of voice of the kid whose sister died after a week of fever is steady when he walks up to the teacher and says “Ma’am, aap meri behen ka naam register se kaat do. Woh toh khatm ho gayi”.