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It was Sunday afternoon. The air was a chilly though a watery sun was trying to break through the fog. The roads were empty. I normally do not venture out on Sunday. This Sunday however I took the road I take every morning to work. At the red light near the flyover close to my home lives a posse of beggars. Normally when we pass them by every morning at eight, they are still waking up. Some of them are still huddled under their blankets, others are brushing their teeth on the road side, some women are busy making tea on their makeshift stove. At that time of day you are rarely solicited for alms. Their working day has not begun.

This day was different. The space under the flyover normally teeming with beggars was empty. The only reminder of their existence was a heap of grubby bundles and bags carefully piled up in a corner. Everyone had left to take their positions at different spots.

We reached the red light and stopped. Out of nowhere sprung a little girl. She must have been two. Her feet were bare and she wore a tattered skirt and blouse that could not have kept her warm. She approached the three wheeler her tiny hand held out. I looked up at her and saw the most beautiful child I could imagine. Her eyes sparkled and were full of mischief as she enticed you into a game. She had almost perfect features and plump cheeks and looked a far cry from any beggar child I had ever seen. She looked more like the children you see on picture postcards or glitzy ads.

You could make out that she had been taught the right gestures and actions for her trade: the hand held out, the little chubby legs running from one vehicle to the other, the rehearsed speech. But that was were it ended. Was it her innocence that turned the sordid drama into a game she played with aplomb and glee. Her handler sat on the curb watching the child. She was much older and it looked as if she was assigned the task of training her. The child did run back to her often , as if she were seeking approval and encouragement. The light turned green and we moved on. As we left the little girl gave us the most endearing smile and waved merrily.

I had thought that I was totally inured to the menace of the beggar child after years of facing them at every red light you cross. I often carry biscuits and hand them over to the child that proffers his of her little hand. But the sight of this little girl changed it all. Something snapped inside me. Perhaps it was the walls I had carefully built to enable me to withstand the sight of the innumerable beggar children one comes across each day. Or perhaps was if the fact that usually, the children one comes across are either half drugged babes in arms or pesky kids well honed in the art of begging. But this little girl still had all the innocence of a child and looked at you as if you were an equal, one willing to be part of the new game she had been taught. The world I had shut away willingly had once again become real. No child, no matter how pesky should be used and abused in this way. And yet it happens each day and we just pass by.

Had I too become hardened or had I simply drawn false comfort from the fact that I was doing a great job. Was I not helping so many poor children! The sight of that tiny little girl made me feel very small and inconsequential. The work that seemed till that very instant fairly laudable looked pitiful. It would be weeks or at best months before the tiny girl lost her innocence and became one the pesky children and another still in the arms would be seen learning the tricks of the trade. But the question that needed to be asked was whether anything could be done.

Some years ago we had tried to do something for the children under this very flyover. Our idea was to run a one hour outreach programme where we wanted to try and give these kids some basic education, but we found out that this was not to be as the children formed an essential part of the begging trade as they were the ones most likely to bring in the moolah. We were rudely sent way by the rather forbidding leaders of the pack. This was a serious albeit disdainful well organised commercial activity and the children had to sing for their supper. Needless to say we left sheepishly with our great ideas and plans.

We have all heard about the sordid tales that underlie the world of beggars be it the child maimed or the ones hired for the day. Even I wrote my posts dutifully expressing my rage and then moved on. Somehow one had shut this world away as it seemed hopeless. The sight of the little beggar girl who was so different from her brood raised many uncomfortable questions.

Each one of us are in some way or the other responsible for the fact that this little girl is today learning this despicable trade. We are all guilty of dropping that fateful coin in the proffered hand and thus giving this trade some credibility and support. I know it is the easiest way of getting rid of the annoying child that knocks at your window or trails you mercilessly. But then as long as we continue doing this we give our tacit approval to the trade. These children are also citizens of this land and hence protected by its constitution and yet every single right of theirs is hijacked. They are simply a menace we have learnt to live with. We cannot remain silent and see more children’s lives destroyed. We need to act now!

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To the manor born