Amongst the undervalued heroes of the current crisis are also our field team members. Never forgetting the organization’s mission to prevent children from slipping into a life on the streets, they have prioritized the rights and protection of children and worked relentlessly to understand their most pressing needs and provide basic essentials to families across 7 states in India. In conversation with one of our own – Ravi Shanker, who shares his experience in reaching out to children during the COVID19 situation.

Q) Tell us a little about your work at Railway Children India (RCI) over the last few years.

Ravi Shanker: I joined Railway Children India in 2017, as a field officer in Darbhanga, Bihar, under partnership management, working mostly with local NGOs and Government agencies. The focus of my work was in the assessment and management of the Child Help Desk for which there was a model of correspondence and procedures followed. I worked in there for 2 years, after which I was transferred to Delhi, to bring in and follow the model we set up in Darbhanga. In Delhi, I was given a more managerial role. Today, I’m working as a Project Manager under direct intervention of RCI, and my work is oriented more towards decision making and monitoring, to ensure the working of the RCI network are well-oiled and function smoothly.

Q) Share with us your experience on the ground after the start of Covid19 interventions.

Ravi Shanker: While the pandemic was first identified in January, it was only in Mid-March that steps were set up for precaution. The lockdown resulted in a great deal of apprehension amongst the field team who would interact directly with children. At the same time, the emergency situation demanding a different set of protocols, which meant that we would have to think creatively to ensure children were still being protected. As a solution, we brought in protective gear and hand sanitizers for all employees as well as the children, keeping the two lots separately. Additionally, we prepared Do’s and Dont’s charts and standard protocol document regarding how work was to be conducted in such times. This helped the field team lessen their worries, and restore their zest to reach out to children in their usual, warm and friendly demeanour. Therefore, our starting point for dealing with the covid19 situation, was the health of both children and our work force.

This health emergency has put spotlight on the fact that children are always most affected in these situations and need to be considered first.

Q) What do the streets look like nowadays under lockdown?

Ravi Shanker: The most striking feature is the lonely streets and lack of people, of course. Before the lockdown was announced, there were people everywhere who were busy going about their work. The lack of people and traffic helps us travel much faster, which is a positive.  Nowadays it almost looks like a zombie movie, with barely any soul in sight. You mostly just see the police officers. They have been working very hard and have been trying their best to ensure the lockdown is followed. An array of questions is being asked by the police to ensure that people are out for valid reasons. While most of the families were comfortable at home, there were a few that required our assistance as they do not have the means to sustain themselves. What we could sense within these families was a sense of frustration as their independence was lost.

Q) How has this health emergency been different from the other emergency situations you have intervened in, for the children?

Ravi Shanker: Since joining Railway Children India, I have worked during various emergencies, such as floods, but this emergency is the first of its kind. This emergency has created a lot more apprehension in the minds of the people. The consequences of this emergency is extremely drastic and is nothing we have seen before. Since its so easily transferable, it creates a lot of fear in the mind of the people and its extremely widespread. While other emergencies impact a specific group of people at a time, in the case of the current pandemic anybody could be affected, which makes it a bigger threat and a greatest risk. This pandemic has deeply influenced the mindsets of the people and there is very little trust in one another as anybody could be a risk. The children do not really understand what is happening very well and get very confused about the distancing and precautions. So it is our duty in our line of work to ensure the children are well protected and well-informed as to why they need to be a lot more careful. We also ensure we have enough materials to protect the children and prevent them from being affected by the virus.

Q) What do you believe has been the impact on children?

Ravi Shanker: The impact of children has been devastating. The most disheartening observation is that the children are very scared and worried that they could die as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, when parents are worried with the loss of their livelihood and income, it inadvertently affects children in numerous ways. Dependence on outsiders for help, no school, no time playtime or meeting friends, extreme boredom and no constructive use of their time is also leading to psycho-social impacts.

Since Railway stations are shut, and there are no children arriving there, our current work is focused on bringing children who are found away from home, under the care of a Government shelter. Most of our work is following up with children whom we have reunited with their families in the past, ensuring they been returned home safely and not taken to a life on the street.

Besides addressing children’s most primary needs of basic essentials, our teams are spending time talking to them to understand their thoughts and concerns, and repeatedly trying to console and comfort them.

Q) What will be the status of children and their families once the lockdown is lifted? What are the realities and concerns at the moment?

Ravi Shanker: The negatives of the lockdown are many – especially for those families that are below poverty line. Right now there are 38 families we are aware of who have little to no financial security and cannot even afford the basic necessities required to survive on a daily basis. These families cannot really follow the ‘lockdown’ as that would result in no income for them. They have no means of survival and are in desperate need of help. A lot of the individuals who are part of these families, especially the ones who are migrant workers, manage on daily wages and hence at this time have no scope for employment. As a result, they have no financial support whatsoever. We are trying our best to support such families and ensure their basic needs are taken care of.

Therefore, the biggest challenge for them once the lockdown is lifted is finding employment and a source of financial support so that their families and children can be fed. A lot of people have a big debts to clear, such as rent, piled up with no avenues to pay them as they have lost whatever opportunity they had of employment. This has taken both a physical and mental toll on families and their children.

Q) What are current gaps for child protection on the ground which are being addressed and what gap areas do you see?

Ravi Shanker: The biggest problem when it comes to child protection is the lack of means of intervention. The reason for the presence of an age limit of 18 for a person to be deemed an adult, is because children need support in multiple ways.

Currently, children’s most basic needs of food and shelter are not being met. Their basic rights to survival, protection, participation, health, amongst others are all almost negligent. While our work has been focused on ensuring children are safe with their families, often families themselves are abusive towards children. With no access to school, playtime and recreation, no opportunities to learn and thrive, there are severe mental health impacts on the rise.

Therefore, the gap areas for child protection are many, and the means to provide support amidst a complete lockdown are slim.

Q) How has the collaboration between Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) and RCI has been beneficial? Please elaborate.

Ravi Shanker: The most important factor is that both of the bodies have a common goal and wish to serve children in the same manner. With DCPCR having constant communication with the Government, it helps to transfer our knowledge from the field, and real scenarios of children to them. It was the DCPCR which provided us with the passes so that we were allowed to move around and do work on the ground. It goes to show how collaboration are a key strategy for the way forward. It is when the Government, NGOs, civil society come together that children will be safe.

Q) Share with us a story during your intervention for Covid 19, that you believe people should hear, so that they prioritize protecting the children in these times

Ravi Shanker: There are two stories I would like to narrate:

The first story is of a family wherein the boy, who we had previously worked with, had called us for help. His family consisted of his father, mother and his sister who is around 13 years old. His father is a rickshaw driver, and had recently broken his arm and could not work for a while, but he could not go to the hospital as it was extremely difficult to do so. They had spent their entire savings, which was around Rs 1000 – 1500 on groceries and other necessities over the duration of the lockdown and were now surviving on just one meal a day with barely any groceries left. The family belongs under the OBC Category and were not receiving any assistance when the boy contacted us for help.

The second story is about a boy who was living with his grandmother. Despite being at an age wherein it was difficult for her to work, she still found work as a domestic helper to make ends meet. However, due to the lockdown she lost her job and could no longer provide any financial support.  It was when they had spent all their savings that the boy tried to contact us.

These stories are the stories of many children. With the coming of covid19, their already vulnerable situations have become even more intense, and it only with concerted efforts and prioritizing the rights of children, that it shall fructify someday.

Q) Give us 3 suggestions, based on your experience, that you believe will lessen the burden of Covid 19 on the children.

Ravi Shanker: 1. All people must follow the precautionary measures suggested by the Government should be followed keeping in mind the safety of children.

2. The Government should assess the affect of the lockdown before extending it, and provide assistance to all families below poverty line so that their children are not impacted negatively. Avenues for learning, play and other activities should be made available to children to counter the negative impacts of covid19.

3. Mental and psychological help should be provided to families and their children, on an urgent basis, since the lockdown has had adverse effects of their independence and their futures.