The virus shutdown jeopardises the livelihoods of street children as they are at greater risk of infection
Shahin used to wake up early in the morning and rush to different neighborhoods to collect waste and garbage. The 14-year-old would return to Dhaka's Jatrabari salvage store in the afternoon – once his sack was filled with plastic bottles, iron scraps and glass. The shop owner would keep the scavenged items and give him Tk150-200.
The boy had been spending the earnings in the last six years for his two-member household – composed of himself and his mother. Like Shahin, thousands of children in the city's Jatrabari support themselves by collecting garbage.
They still collect scraps and stock them at the salvage store, but the shop owner does not pay them now.
"The store owner said he would pay us after selling the materials when the situation becomes normal," Shahin said. However, neither the boy, nor the shopkeeper knows when the situation will return to normal.
The ongoing shutdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic has impeded the livelihoods of Dhaka's street children and they remain outside of government relief operations. The children are also more exposed to the virus as they go out every morning to collect rubbish.
According to a non-governmental organisation's estimation, nearly 1 lakh children collect garbage and waste for their livelihood in urban areas in Bangladesh. Around 75 percent of these children live in the capital.
This correspondent talked to eight children in Jatrabari who earn their living on the street. The children said they have not received any relief materials or food during the ongoing shutdown.
In the meantime, Bachchu Mia, owner of a salvage store at Jatrabari's Dholpur area, said he was keeping record of the collections as he was unable to pay the children at present.
"We also dream of a better life like other children. But how? The government or political leaders — nobody cares about us," said Maruf, a 16-year-old of the area.
Zonal officer of the Dhaka South City Corporation Shahinur Alam agreed that the city authorities lack protective measures for the street children.
He said every city corporation area has a children's rights protection committee. However, those committees are rarely active.
"Rehabilitating the street children requires a long-term plan and allocations. However, we do not have any funds for them and the government has not allocated much," he added.
Shahinur believes the government and the city corporations should at least have allocations for the children during this pandemic.
"A Child Protection Committee was formed in 2014. It is also inactive," concluded the city corporation official.
Virus fallout makes street children more susceptible to crime
NGOs that work with street children said the number of street children is around 11 lakh — including homeless children who live and sleep on the streets plus those who earn their living on the streets and return to their families at night.
The estimated 1 lakh children are on their own and are not involved in petty crimes as they remain busy for their livelihoods, said the NGOs.
If emergency initiatives are not taken by the government, these children could become involved in criminal activities for their livelihoods, noted the organisations.
"The government has yet to take measures addressing food security and the health issues of the street children," said Md Akram Hossain, project manager at the Centre for Services and Information on Disability (CSID).
Akram told The Business Standard that as most of the street children do not have a guardian or supervising adult, they struggle to afford three meals a day.
CSID Executive Director Khondoker Zohurul Alam said though the government has announced special packages for people of different walks of life, the government's omission of the street children from relief efforts is unfortunate.
Bangladesh Shishu Odhikar Forum Director Abdus Shahid Mahmood told The Business Standard that though the NGOs have been providing support to the children, the aid is inadequate.
What does the social welfare ministry say?
For the street children, the Ministry of Social Welfare has two different projects — Child Sensitive Social Protection in Bangladesh, and Services for the Children at Risk.
The ministry's Secretary Mohammad Jainul Bari told The Business Standard that the ministry is working to ensure safety and food security of the street children by undertaking different projects.
However, NGO officials said they have not heard of any such initiatives.
"I have not heard about any initiative taken up for street children under these two projects of the ministry," said Shararat Islam, senior manager of Save the Children in Bangladesh.
"People in all segments of society are currently at risk. These children face more danger from the virus. The government should take immediate measures ensuring their food and health safety," human rights activist Sultana Kamal told The Business Standard.