Archana was the child of a mixed marriage. Her mother was Bengali, while her father was from Bihar. The union of these two different cultures didn’t last long, though. Soon after Archana’s birth, her parents got divorced, and the mother and child were left to fend for themselves.
Then at the young age of 10, Archana lost her mother as well. Her maternal aunt and uncle were her only surviving family. Both uneducated, both alcoholic, they decided to use their orphaned niece to make money instead of caring for her – and so it came about that Archana was left holding a begging bowl on the platform of Andheri station.
Horrific as it may seem, it’s true that 10-year-old Archana’s aunt and uncle did not just force her to beg, but also to pretend she was blind so as to squeeze greater sympathy from passersby. Archana soon realised that she didn’t have much choice but to obey if she wanted to survive.
Days passed. While the uncle and aunt remained happily intoxicated, Archana begged in the midst of strangers.
One Mr. Pande, a daily local train commuter, would see Archana every day. He sometimes gave her money. One day he tried talking to her, but Archana was so scared she was tongue-tied. Her uncle Raju Biswa, who was keeping an eye on her, came running when he saw a stranger trying to talk to her and told him that Archana was his orphaned niece whom he was soon going to enroll in a hostel.
Mr. Pande, however, had his own suspicions. He took a photograph of Archana on his cell phone and posted it on Facebook.
Social media has the advantage of allowing us to reach innumerable people instantly, which was what happened with Archana’s photo as well. It came to the notice of the center’s Dept of School Education & Literacy, which asked Mr. Nandkumar, the then Principal Secretary, School Education and Sports Department, Maharashtra, to look into the matter.
Nandkumar got in touch with the Equity Department at the Maharashtra Academic Authority (MAA), and soon our Balrakshak team, working under the supervision of Mumbai coordinator Vaishali Shinde, prepared to look for Archana.
On 21st February 2018, We the Mumbai Balrakshak team have accepted the challenge of the rescue operation of Archana. We were 4 people – Arun Patil, Ms. Karmelin Dawriya, Ms. Vaishali Shinde & myself. We have started this rescue operation under the guidance of Equity department of Maharashtra Academic Authority, Pune. We have started the search at Andheri railway station, we also have searched Andheri Metro station too. We have contacted the Railway Police, GRPF and Mr. Pande too. Mr. Pande have told us that Archana might lives in Nalasopara.
We looked all over, in and around Nalasopara, but could not locate Archana. Discouraged, we went to the Nalasopara police station, but the cops there were unhelpful.
It had been an exhausting day and was past nine already, but we were reluctant to give up. We went back to Andheri station and spoke to the beggars there, but were unable to get any information from them.
The next day, we balrakshaks, along with Vaishali Shinde, went to Andheri station again, where we came across some blind beggars selling toys. We started chatting with them and, once they began trusting us, asked them about Archana. A little girl told us that Archana did indeed live in Nalasopara, and so we decided to renew our search for her there.
February 27, 2018. We were determined to find Archana today. After finishing our day jobs, the whole Balrakshak team and the Nalasopara police inspector met at 6 PM near the place where she apparently lived. Although we did not manage to find her, we were told that she was begging at Andheri station. We immediately contacted Mr. Pande and asked him to wait for us at the station. We reached Andheri, but once again the beggars and shopkeepers told us that she was not there. We understood that Archana had been hidden, in anticipation of our arrival.
Meanwhile, we had handed Archana’s uncle Raju Biswa over to the police, who began questioning him. To hurry things up we called Prachi Sathe, Officer on Special Duty for Education Minister, Vinod Tawde, a little past midnight. She asked the police to handle the case on a priority basis, and soon uncle and aunt had both spilled the beans. They confessed that they had been forcing Archana to beg, and also that they had hidden her in a hut in Nalasopara.
Armed with this information, we reached Nalasopara around one in the morning, accompanied by one male and one female police officer. We found Archana huddled inside a hut. She was scared, unable to understand why the police had come for her. We talked to her, and explained everything, till she was reassured that we were her friends. Finally, she came away with us willingly.
Once she was convinced we were there to help her, Archana started talking freely. She gave us a full account of the torture she had endured at the hands of her uncle and aunt. When we asked her if she wanted to continue to beg or wished to study, she tearfully told us that she would like to go back to school.
For now, she is housed in a remand home. She is safe and happy there and is studying in the 5th std. We are happy that we succeeded in bringing her back to school. When we see her smile, all the pains we took to rescue her seems worthwhile.
Every child has the right to education and the right to live a happy life. We are satisfied that we fulfilled our responsibility as balrakshaks and were able to restore her rights.
(Note: The name of the girl has been changed in this article for the sake of her safety.)
Writer: Ramlal Pawar, Teacher, Shri Chhatrapati Shivaji Education Institute, Secondary School, Santacruz, Mumbai
Editing and translation: samata.shiksha team