Delhi street kids bank on each other

Like most bankers his age, Anuj Chaudhry has a lot to think about each day. Balancing the books. Checking on delinquent loans. Finishing his homework.

Well, okay, so the world doesn't have a lot of 13-year-old bankers. The number of orphaned, street-dwelling, rag-picking youths who run cooperative banks for homeless children must be even smaller.

But Anuj and the 160 members of the Bal Vikas Bank, or Child Development Bank, say children who live on the street should have more opportunities to take charge of their finances and help each other escape the cycle of poverty. If they wait for adults to provide for them, they say, they'll wait forever.

"They are saving their money and proving their worth," says the gangly Anuj in the bank's headquarters, a five-by-seven-foot wood-and-metal cubicle in a corner of the Fatehpuri Night Shelter in Old Delhi. "Now they have hope for the future."

The concept behind Anuj's bank - giving small loans for small projects - is not new. But while activists and development experts are quick to offer small loans to poor women in Bangladesh to start their own businesses, for instance, or to homeless adults in London or New York to learn new job skills, lenders are more skeptical when it comes to giving money to indigent kids. Will they spend it on drugs? Will they just take it and run?

"The general view of working with children is that we can only see them as being protected from the world, within the four walls of a home," says Rita Panicker, director of Butterflies, a non-profit group that helped set up the Bal Vikas Bank. "But people forget that the children we're working with are very empowered. They're masters of their own destiny, if only in their minds."

Yet the debate over microcredit, as the concept is called, goes deeper than that. On one side are critics who argue that microcredit is just as its name implies: a positive force on a miniscule scale, certainly no substitute for a large, coordinated poverty-alleviation effort. On the other side are supporters who say the poor cannot wait for the better-off - or the government - to lend a hand. They must help themselves.

Who's the boss?

Past efforts to move children off the street have failed, Ms. Panicker says, because they have not taken into account how children grow up on the streets, making up their own rules.

"Teamwork? Oh my God," she laughs. "Each one of these children is a leader, a hero. They hate to be followers," she says. "So if you train them to be factory workers under a superior, they'll say: 'Who does he think he is?' "

In a curious way, Panicker says, street children make ideal entrepreneurs - wily, adventurous, and driven to try new ideas.

But with so little to invest, street-working children can also be incredibly conservative with their own money. Panicker recalls when the children first discussed the rules of their bank at their weekly children's counsel. At the start, they created so many rules - no smokers, drinkers, drug-takers, drug-peddlers, bullies, pickpockets, or gamblers - that they soon realized none of them would qualify for a loan. They eventually loosened the rules, and so far the children's bank has helped four teenagers start their own businesses, selling goods from pushcarts at the roadside.

While most observers applaud Panicker and other nongovernmental groups for their work, many say that such small-scale efforts will make only a marginal difference in the lives of India's teeming millions of homeless.

"It is a very good attempt at trying to get people a measure of self-respect, and there might be some enterprising individuals who do actually move up out of poverty," says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "But in a country like ours, you can't think small any longer."

Unlike modern India's founders, Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad, and Dr. Ambedkar among them, today's politicians and bureaucrats pay little attention to the hard work of alleviating poverty among India's burgeoning population of urban and rural poor. This leaves development to a handful of nonprofit charity groups like the Missionaries of Charity, the Ramakrishna Mission, and Butterflies, which can only do so much.

In this context, a bank for street-children "is surely something we should do," says Dr. Gupta, "but please, don't think that this is in place of integrated, sustained development."

Big business

In front of Old Delhi Railway Station is one of Bal Vikas Bank's success stories. Afroz, a cheeky 16-year-old with a broken-toothed smile, sells wallets, T-shirts, combs, and other items from a pushcart he bought with a loan from the children's bank. With a local shopkeeper acting as a loan guarantor, Afroz started with a 5,000 rupee ($104) loan six months ago, and paid it off in three months. He has since taken out a separate 4,500 rupee ($93) loan, and business is good enough that he plans to expand soon.

"When I first started out on the street, eight years ago, I was picking up garbage for recycling, but I didn't like it," says Afroz. "That life stopped seven months ago," he says, grinning. "Now, my plan is to open up a shop, and take another loan from the bank to do it."

Such optimism obscures the hard lives of these children. Anuj, the bank manager, took to the streets at the age of eight after his parents died in an accident. Beaten relentlessly by his uncle, he ran away from home, and took a job at a restaurant in Gujarat. For a year, he earned no wages, only food and housing. This seemed natural to Anuj, since he had never earned wages before, but another boy convinced him he was being taken advantage of and helped him escape to Delhi.

A year later, penniless, Anuj began to earn 30 to 40 rupees (62 to 82 cents) a day by gathering plastic bottles and tin cans from the streets and garbage dumps of Delhi and selling them for recycling. He later enrolled in a local public school, where he excels in mathematics. Today, after Anuj finishes his homework, he gathers garbage, sells it, and then returns to the shelter to open up the bank for his returning friends.

Dealing with delinquents

But as street children come and go, the world of banking has gotten complicated for Anuj.

Two loan recipients have recently skipped town, having paid only half their loans. Other boys who served on the loan committee have also left town, leaving it to Anuj to track down the guarantors and demand at least partial repayment of the delinquent loans.

Still, Anuj says he loves it. "It's not difficult for me," he says, matter-of-factly. "I'm good at math, and if we catch the guarantor, we'll take the money from him." He smiles.

"I started from here, and I want to be here. I am planning to be with the bank for as long as I can," he says. "These children need me."

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