Teenage activist Saloni Todkari’s campaign to ban child begging draws comparisons with Greta Thunberg

Published : January 13, 2021 19:54 IST

Activist Saloni Todkari. Photo: By Special Arrangement

For the past one year, 17-year-old activist Saloni Todkari from Mangaon in Maharashtra has been holding a weekly fast in protest against children begging on the streets. Her tenacity has drawn comparisons with none other than Swedish teenage environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg.

Since January 2020, Todkari has chosen a location in Mumbai’s neighbouring districts of Thane, Palghar, or Raigad’s Mangaon area where she conducts a day-long fast, sometimes with a few supporters. Todkari said she was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent yet impactful method of protest, and would continue the sit-in until the issue was addressed. Even during the COVID-induced lockdown, Todkari managed to keep up the fasts – although she could not do it in public.

Her fight is commendable, given the corruption and people turning a blind eye towards this issue. Child beggars are visible at prominent traffic signals that line the routes taken by lawmakers and influential citizens to their offices or homes in Mumbai. In spite of laws banning begging and child labour, these street children fall through the cracks. The rot is so deep that even NGOs who work with destitute families have been unable to stop it. Todkari said she realised the issue was complex and dangerous but it had to be fought.

“How can they use such young minds for their gains?” she told Frontline. “Parents who have no other option, use children to earn a living. Sometimes children are abandoned and this is a way of surviving, and we all know in Mumbai how children are caught in the nexus between slumlords and the authorities. I know the dangers of this issue as it involves criminal elements. But I will continue to fight for this cause.”

Todkari began the protest after Chiranjeevi, the child rights organisation she works for, celebrated its seventh anniversary in December 2019. She said she felt a stronger message needed to be sent out and decided that going without food was a form of protest which was meaningful and effective. To date, she has completed 54 hunger strikes.

Her protest, though small, has begun to yield a few results. She said that before the lockdown, the State Minister for Women and Child Development created a Bal Vikas Shala, a shelter for child beggars and street children, in Pune. “This was one of our demands and we felt encouraged that the government took our suggestion seriously.”

Todkari’s fight is significant considering she is a youngster herself. Juggling college and volunteer work, she believes her journey will inspire others and if the youth collectively understood these issues, they could make a bigger difference.

Professor Imre Bangha, from the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is familiar with Todkari’s work. He said : “This is a long due initiative. Our eyes are so much used to the various forms of child begging in India that we often don’t realise that it is a problem but take it as part of our everyday landscape. I am impressed by the purity of the protest and the perseverance of Saloni. She has been doing her protest without significant media attention but with a determination that the situation must change. She won’t change the attitudes alone but she may contribute to building a world in which politicians, policemen and common citizens stand up against the horrendous crime of depriving children of their dignity. A message coming from an underprivileged girl can act as a catalyst that more and more people realise the inhuman aspect of child begging and the human face of the children on the street.”

Todkari is currently the national president of Chiranjeevi, that works against child labour, child marriage and child sexual abuse. The organisation had sent a 10-point list of demands to the State government prior to the lockdown, which included amendments to the provisions regarding child labour as well as measures for skill development of children, among other things.

She said that they hoped a few suggestions would be looked into as child begging had become severe post the lockdown. “Now you see them everywhere. Some people take pity and give cash or biscuits. My appeal is to stop giving hand-outs. This is harsh but it’s the only way.”

Following the despair witnessed during and post the lockdown, the Central government identified 10 cities, which includes Mumbai, for an initiative to make them begging-free zones. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has put in place a few measures, which include shelters, providing medical assistance and food camps. However, begging remains a criminalised activity in the metropolis and a strong hand is needed to put an end to it.