Walking the tightrope to survive on Mumbai's streets

MUMBAI - With a bronze pot balanced on her head and a painted bamboo pole in her hands, 9-year-old Barsati steps onto a tightrope nearly six feet above a Mumbai street.

Her mid-air performance varies - sometimes barefooted, sometimes in flip flops, sometimes walking inside a wheel or with a plate beneath one foot. But each time, her aunt thumps rapidly on a drum and draws in curious passers-by.

Indians on their way to work or tourists filming the spectacle with their smartphones throw rupees into a bowl on the pavement below.

Although most are amazed by her skills, Barsati, who took to the rope from the age of five instead of going to school, is nonplussed.

"Now I am used to it. People give us money," she shrugged, taking a break between performances in the teeming Fort district of south Mumbai.

Barsati's uncle Chotu Nath, who oversees the proceedings and gives his age as "about 20", explained that both his mother and his grandmother were tightrope walkers in their youth.

"It's a family thing," he said, adding that the children "never fall" because they learn from such a young age.

'Vicious circle'

Barsati spends just a few weeks each year going to school during India's rainy season, according to her uncle, but the rest of her time is spent earning for her family.

She is one of more than 28 million Indian children estimated by UNICEF to be engaged in some form of labour.

A 2009 Right to Education Act mandates free and compulsory schooling for those aged 6 to 14, but an outright ban on child labour, proposed by the government in 2012, is yet to be passed by parliament.

The current law prohibits children under 14 from working in hazardous jobs - yet even this is not properly implemented, said Kushal Singh, head of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a government body.

"The basic thing is ignorance, and the belief that the child is required to earn for the family because families are so poor," Singh said.

"This is keeping them in a vicious circle. The only way out is if a child studies and gets an education."

While methods to measure poverty are hotly contested, a study by the McKinsey Global Institute released in February found more than half of Indians lacked the means to meet their essential needs, spending less than 1,336 rupees (S$27.65) a month.

Many children are therefore encouraged into work. UNICEF says more than eight million young Indians are out of school, and more than 80 million drop out before completing eight years of education.

Barsati's rare skills allow her to take home 1,500 to 2,000 rupees per day for her family, according to her uncle, but her job on the tightrope leaves little time for schoolwork.

At the end of her day performing, she faces a two-and-a-half hour train ride to her family's slum home on the outskirts of the financial capital, where her parents work as menial labourers.

Other relatives join Barsati's commute to the street. Her little brother Rajababu, bearing a painted moustache, crouches by the tightrope-propping poles while she performs and occasionally picks up the bowl to encourage donations.

A baby cousin sleeps on the pavement through it all, shaded by a cardboard sign for a recent city arts festival.

"We want him to go to school," said Nath, the baby's father.

Attitudes changing

Singh said attitudes towards child labour are "very very slowly changing" in India, but much more needs to be done to alter the mindsets of both families and law enforcement agencies.

"They look on children as the responsibility of the parents. We still don't internalise a rights-based approach to children," said Singh, whose commission is launching a "From street to school" awareness campaign in March.

Yet there is sign of change on the streets of Mumbai, the densely-packed, so-called "Maximum City" in which more than half of the population is estimated to live in slums.

A survey released late last year by ActionAid India and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that 37,059 children were living or working on the city's streets - down from more than 100,000 estimated by a UNICEF study two decades ago.

Some attribute the change to growing surveillance and a lower tolerance for street activity since militant gunmen launched deadly attacks on south Mumbai in 2008. But not all are convinced that street children are disappearing.

"The numbers are not going down, people are brushed inwards into ghettoes and into the suburbs," said Zarin Gupta, chairwoman of the Salaam Baalak Trust for Mumbai street children.

She believes the city's child labour force is continually replenished by migrant families from poorer parts of India, and that children trafficked into forced labour, often for domestic service or sex work, remain a huge concern.

Nirja Bhatnagar, Mumbai-based regional manager for ActionAid India, said the problem of working children could not be solved until strides are taken in improving India's welfare system, including housing, healthcare and sanitation.

"At this point of time we don't have any safety net, so everyone in the family has to fend for themselves."