This is the story of the first time I met someone who looked me in the eye and told me about the night they killed a person.
Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM) is an NGO working, among other things, in the area of rehabilitation of drug-dependent juveniles. The Juvenile Justice Board refers juveniles who show signs of drug-addiction and are convicted in cases of serious criminal offences to SPYM for rehabilitation. Their campus at Kingsway Camp runs a 3-month rehabilitation course with a capacity to handle 50 children at a time. It almost always works at over-capacity.
Children get addicted to drugs at the tender age of 8-12 years. In the absence of costlier options, they will ingest iodex, shoe polish, ink, etc to satiate their addiction. Slowly, as their dependence increases, and they get addicted to pricier options (such as opium, marijuana, smack, intravenous drugs, etc.), they are forced to turn to a life of crime.
How does an innocent child meet with such a fate? Shibendu (manager of Sahyog – the SPYM center at Sewa Kutir Complex in Kingsway Camp) tells me the story of a typical juvenile.
“A friend at school, or a neighbor, or a relative introduces him to a light drug one day.
Come, I will show you something fun.
He tries a marijuana smoke for the first time. It takes his mind off his hunger, his abusive father, his unfortunate and deprived existence. He likes the feeling. The next day, another free smoke. And so on for several weeks. Then one day:
Why don’t you treat us today?
But I don’t have any money.
Come, I will show you how to make some.
His first crime. May be he just has to carry a bag somewhere. May be a petty theft. It pays him handsomely. He gets to buy drugs. May be he even takes some money home. His parents, living in their own abject poverty, are happy the son has brought home some money. In most homes, no questions are asked about the source of the money as long as there is one. In extreme cases, the parents themselves are addicts. Any income is welcome in these homes.
And that is where it all begins.”
At Sahyog, the rehabilitation begins with medical treatment and detoxification. But medical weaning is just a small part of the solution. Children are powerhouses of energy. What would a child with a tainted past do with all his extra energy? Sahyog realizes that it is critical to channelize all this energy in a positive direction.
“There are five elements of an effective rehab.” Shibendu tells me.
- Counseling: Peer counseling works much better than even professional counseling. We get boys who have come out of this life to talk to these children about their stories, the obstacles they faced, and what helped them overcome these obstacles.
- Literacy: 70% of these children are primary school dropouts. A new technology “Talking Pen” is used to make them at least semi-literate in the limited 3 months they spend at Sahyog. The Talking Pen technology involves a book with a bar code printed next to each word.
When the pen is placed on the word, it reads the bar code and the word is read out loud through the speakers built in the pen.
- Skill Development: Organized as a Public-Private Partnership, there are many vocational training modules at SPYM Sahyog. A food production certificate course, a motor mechanics course, laundry training, and computer education are the main programmes being run here.
- Bal Panchayat: A big reason behind these children getting wayward was their inability to stand up for themselves and decide what is right or wrong. To build this important decision making ability in them, they are formed into a Panchayat or Parliament, whose members are rotated every week. This panchayat takes all decisions regarding the running of the center, designs class schedules, resolves disputes, and distributes workload of cooking, cleaning, laundry etc among the children fairly.
- Halfway Home: SPYM’s biggest concern is what happens to these children when they go back out in the real world. Many come from families with a history of drug abuse. Some are orphans. 12 year old Rajesh’s (name changed) father killed himself, and he is forced to earn money for the family. He has already relapsed twice and this is his third stint at the center. He says that he never wants to leave the center. The center fought a case in the court that allowed them to let him stay on. For children like these who are not yet ready to support themselves in the outside world on their own, a Halfway Home has been set up in the same campus. Children get food, lodging and boarding there while they are given due support to become self-reliant.
SPYM Sahyog is just 2 years old. In this time, it has already rehabilitated hundreds of young boys. While worldwide standard of success rates after rehabilitation is 5%, Sahyog has seen a success rate of 50-60%.
“Children are more easily cured of the addiction as it is rarely more than 2 years old in their case. Also, their bodies are more resilient and recover faster than adults.” says Shibendu. The real challenge is to avoid them falling back into the circumstances that led them here in the first place.
He introduces me to Ali (name changed) who used to be a drug addict. While Ali speaks to me, I notice his left forearm is full of scars – presumably from intravenous drug use over months, or even years. I ask him to tell me about his experience at Sahyog, expecting a rosy tale of the triumph of the human spirit.
“I fell into this habit as a child. My family kept trying to warn me but I was beyond reason. Eventually, I even lost my father to this habit. One Dussehra night, I and my friends went to the Ramlila maidan to see the fireworks. I don’t even remember how many drugs I was on that night. Ganja, smack, alcohol – I had had everything that night. As we were walking back from the maidan, I ran into this man. I threatened him and took his money. Then I killed him.”
At this point, I barely suppressed a look of shock. He went on to tell me how he underwent laundry training at Sahyog and today trains the younger children who come here for rehabilitation. But, to be honest, my mind was still on the fact that I was talking to a murderer. A completely innocent-looking boy – cute, even – telling me about this gory act he committed with a straight face. For all my holier-than-thou, spirited journalist, uncovering-the-truth mode of operation, I was – admittedly – afraid.
I spent 3 hours at Sahyog. I was spellbound by the amazing work they were doing. I had new-found respect for the goodness of man, seeing the selfless work being done by the people behind SPYM. All this notwithstanding, on my way back, I couldn’t help but think about Ali.
I imagined what I would have thought if I read his story in a newspaper. A teenage drug-addict loots and mercilessly murders an innocent man going home after Dussehra. The man probably had a family back home waiting for him. Wife, children, parents, dependents – loved ones waiting for him to come home. What would I have thought after reading the article?
I’d have thought of how unsafe our city has become. I’d have blamed the wayward youth of our country. I would have said that the murderer must be given the worst punishment possible. When an innocent person gets mugged and killed for no apparent reason, it seems fairly easy to point a finger at the “monster” behind the crime.
However, meeting these juveniles and hearing their moving life stories makes you wonder if the verdict is indeed as simple as it appears to be. When a child eats shoe polish to keep his mind off his hunger, who is the culprit? My interaction with the Director of SPYM, Dr Rajesh Kumar, opened my eyes to the role we as a society play in the condition of these people. None of us want slums defacing our beautiful city. We hate traveling with stinking migrant labourers in public transport. We condemn juvenile criminals for being the scum of the universe.
But we do want cheap labour to build our skyscrapers. We do want to pay the housemaid as little as possible. We readily pay 500% premia at the supermarket, but will haggle with the vegetable vendor for the last 5 rupees.
Is it possible that the vegetable vendor’s hungry son is turning to drugs? Is it possible that our house maid’s child, whom she could not afford to keep in school, has turned to a life of petty crime?
Is it possible that we are a part of the problem too?