A child’s voice interrupts the ocean breeze that blows across the boardwalk. Looking down, a small boy, no more than five years old, holds one hand out as the other makes an eating gesture, unmistakably asking for food.
The scene is sobering, but all too common across India, especially in the city of Mumbai.
With a population of about 30 million people between Mumbai proper and the surrounding suburbs, and a substantial disparity in wealth, the city is no stranger to residents on hard times.
Beyond homeless adults and vendors who can barely make a living, an even more disturbing matter hides in the back alleys and side streets of Mumbai.
According to Amnesty International, in Mumbai alone, approximately 100,000 children and adolescents fall under the designation of “street kids”. Street kids are children who have made the streets of major Indian cities their homes, resorting to begging, stealing, vending, or scavenging in order to survive.
Many leave their homes due to poverty, physical and sexual abuse, or a desire for opportunity outside of the limited opportunities available to them at home. These children -- many of whom are under the age of 12 according to UNICEF -- frequently band together in order to avoid the harm they often befall. As a result of their youth, they are often targeted by law enforcement and criminals for extortion, prostitution, physical abuse and illegal labor.
As reported by AFEA, a French organization focused on giving aid to street kids across the globe, India is home to the largest number of street kids in the world, with approximately 50 million children under the age of 14 working illegally in legitimate businesses.
These children, displaced by horrific circumstances and subject to extreme exploitation, have limited prospects as far as survival is concerned.
According to AFEA, approximately 15,000 children go missing in Mumbai alone. While abduction is certainly a likelihood for them, other factors like death as a result of illness and injuries, and even suicide is common.
Many of these children do not exist as far as India’s government is concerned, with no documentation. This means that the number of street kids -- as well as their fatalities -- are likely unreported, which suggests that all the statistics available surrounding the issue are underreported.
As India’s income disparity continues to widen exponentially along with a lack of bureaucratic efficiency, the likelihood of rectifying this tragic affair is slim to none.
Gurdwara siS Ganj: progressivism 500 years before its time
A dense haze hangs above half-completed high rise rooftops. Loose wires and pastel tin roofs peek out between layers of pollution.
As we approach the heart of Delhi, the roads lose their characteristic cracks and street dogs, replaced by men in business attire and teenagers flirting as they make their way home from school.
Our bus comes to a stop at the end of a side road. A busy stone footpath runs alongside a pristine stucco building adorned with gold detailing; the Gurdwara Sis Ganj, a Sikh temple in metropolitan Delhi.
While the site is a popular spot for Sikhs and tourists alike, it stands an important symbol for the Sikh religion.
In 1675, where the temple now stands, a gruesome execution of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, took place. But, despite immense religious persecution, the guru didn't die defending his own religion. Instead, the guru was sentenced to death for defending the freedom of Hindus to practice their religion in a then-Muslim dominated society.
At the time, the penalty for apostasy and refusing conversion was a public death march followed by beheading.
Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world, was founded a mere 500 years ago, a short time as far as religious identities in India are concerned.
An extremely progressive religion for its time, Sikhism believes in a genderless god, renounces empty symbolic rituals and superstitions, advocates for religious freedom, and even then, permitted women to conduct services and lead prayer.
Before entering the area surrounding the Gurdwara, one must remove their shoes and socks, and adorn a head cover.
Making our way into the temple, we touch the steps in a sign of respect leading into an expansive, gold-laden room.
Surrounded by practicing Sikhs, a man in a white robe sits atop a gold platform reciting scripture in melodic tones.
Outside, people of all ages take a moment to cleanse themselves in the Gurdwara pool as carp and minnow nibble along countless toes.
Just around the corner on Gurdwara grounds, a major charitable food initiative is in full swing. A large kitchen with vats of masala, industrial cooktops covered in bread, and what looks like a 30 foot cutting board littered with flour and dough. The heat from the kitchen emanates into the hallway.
Each day, the kitchen feeds 15-20,000 mouths from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. From beggars to affluent members of society, all are welcome to eat and volunteer.