Nearly four years after a foot overbridge (FOB), also known as Himalaya bridge, connecting Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) collapsed in Mumbai, killing seven persons and injuring 33 others, a new FOB is slated to be opened in the next few months. However, a daycare centre that had been functioning under the bridge for 30 years has been relocated 15 km away to Mahul.
Run by NGO Support since 1993, the daycare centre, which was situated right under the collapsed bridge, took care of children and youth in the 6-25 year age bracket who were addicted to substances, putting them through deaddiction programes and helping rehabilitate them.
The daycare centre’s proximity to one of the busiest railway stations in the city, where many long-distance trains arrive daily, helped. The NGO’s workers could reach out to the children and youngsters easily. Many who spent time at the centre were children who had run away from homes and lived at CSMT and nearby areas after arriving in the city by trains. On any given day, 25-30 children spent a few hours at the centre daily.
But with the centre shifted, such children are finding it difficult to visit it anymore. After the FOB collapsed on March 14, 2019, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) relocated the centre to Mahul, a suburb with no railway station in its vicinity and over 15 km away from CSMT.
NGO Support, which was given the space at CSMT in 1993 by the civic body, is continuing with its outreach programmes for homeless children and youngsters at and around CSMT but with the new centre tucked far away, its efforts to help the children are not having the desired effect.
“At least 25-30 children around CSMT would visit the centre daily. Before it was shut, over 2,500 children and youngsters had undergone deaddiction programmes at the centre and were rehabilitated. With the new centre being far from the railway station, children and youngsters who our workers are reaching out at CSMT are unable to travel such a long distance,” said Rajesh Nainakwal, executive director of NGO Support.
The daycare’s in-charge Ajaj Khan, now 40 and himself one of the youngsters who was rehabilitated after he came to the centre in 1998-99, said that during their continuing outreach in the area, children and youngsters still ask him when the centre will reopen.
After the bridge collapse, the structure was first shut for an audit. Subsequently, the remaining parts of the bridge were brought down and the daycare too was demolished. In 2021, the NGO was asked to run the centre at Mahul. While a few youngsters at Mahul have started visiting the new centre, the NGO’s work outside CSMT station has suffered a setback. It has written to officials seeking space near any of the main suburban railway stations to continue its programme, even if the centre cannot be reopened at the same location.
For those familiar with the area, children living on the streets, CSMT station and nearby areas would spend a few hours daily at the centre earlier. “The idea to open a daycare centre at the spot was to ensure that children and youngsters who are into substance abuse could have an alternate space during the day. They would come here to play games, watch TV, bathe, sleep. Gaining their trust doesn’t happen immediately so we had to ensure that they could use the space to remain off the streets and off drugs at least for a few hours daily. It was the first step towards them realising that they could do without drugs for a few hours. We would then provide them group and individual counselling, non-formal education and with their consent subsequently enroll them in a long-term residential rehabilitation process for deaddiction. The proximity to the railway station was the main reason why the children and youngsters dropped by daily,” said Vijay Pawar, programme director of the NGO.
He said that the idea of the centre was to serve as a ‘window’ and ‘contact point’ to reach out to the children and youngsters. “Children and youngsters living on the streets due to their circumstances face a lot of hardship. They are driven away from the streets and railway stations at night by authorities. When they are sick, there is nobody to care for them. From my own experience, when I visited the centre, there were ‘didis’ and ‘bhaiyyas’ (the staff), who cared, who took us to hospital. Through word of mouth, many began telling other children about it. Through its long windows, we could see that children had a space to sleep, watch TV. I am still asked when the centre will reopen when I visit the area and meet those who used the space before it was shut. Now, it is difficult for them to spend money and travel to Mahul to spend a few hours daily at the new centre,” Khan said.