India has 4 million children living on its streets, and 150 million more working as bonded labourers.
And of the 80,000 children who go missing each year in the world’s biggest democracy, none could reasonably expect to end up being adopted by an Australian couple living on the coast of Tasmania.
But that was the fate of Saroo Brierley, the five-year-old boy who got lost on a train station in central India in 1981 and by some miracle was found safely in Calcutta by an adoption agency. He could easily have been kidnapped, raped or killed, or forced to spend his life begging, never to be reunited with his “Ammi” (mother).
That improbable reunion, following Mr Brierley’s return journey 25 years later, is celebrated in the widely-praised, Oscar-nominated film Lion. And it has helped highlight the plight of children in India where, despite high enrollments, 29 per cent of children drop out before completing five years of primary school.
Now, the leaders of Melbourne-based charity Yatra Foundation, Professor Ravi Savarirayan and Sanjay Jain, say they want to change that.
Established in 2007 with the sole purpose of educating disadvantaged children in India, Yatra is run with the help of local NGOs operating in remote parts of the country.
Professor Savarirayan, a paediatrician and consultant clinical geneticist at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, and Mr Jain, who is the managing director of a sporting goods company, met through their children’s kindergarten in 2000 and became friends.
When they realised that they were supporting some of the same charities individually they decided to “save the world from coffee table discussions”, according to Mr Jain, by launching Yatra (which, in Hindi, means ‘journey’).
“Educating our children is what brought us together and education is what we want to be able to bring to the children in India,” says Prof Savarirayan.
The foundation that started out educating six street children from a slum in Kota Rajasthan, now schools 1200 children in three remote areas of India.
“If we can provide a form of bridging education that gives them some basic literacy and numeracy skills so that, when they join a government school, they are not far behind.
“There are so many Saroos loitering on the streets of India, they come from broken families, alcoholic fathers . . . often they join the school to get the free uniform and drop out,” says Mr Jain.
Lion’s success has so far included six Oscar nominations and two British Academy Awards, as well as glowing mentions in UN speeches. The Australian director, Garth Davis, says he could foresee the potential of the film in moving people and they “needed to do something about it.”
“We thought we have made something very political and it brought to the surface some very current issues,” he told The Citizen at a recent charity screening in Melbourne.
Davis, who with his team was driven to set up a campaign to help lost children in India, says he was overwhelmed by the “humanity” he experienced there.
“I feel there is a deeper understanding of humanity in India because of the circumstances people share; the struggle, suffering and the way people cope with it together.
“You enter a level of connection, an emotionality that is otherwise hard to find.”
As well as Yatra’s efforts, See-Saw Films partnered with The Weinstein Company and The Charity Network to launch #LionHeartCampaign, providing financial support for children who live on the streets of India.
Actor Dev Patel, who plays the older Saroo Brierley in Lion, and Nicole Kidman, playing Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother, are actively involved in the campaign.
The movie, estimated to have already grossed $US132 million ($176 million) worldwide, depicts the emotional ties that tug at the heartstrings of the young Saroo, who uses Google Earth to reconnect with his birthplace and his birth mother.
It is this emotional calling that also takes the founders of Yatra to India four to five times a year, at their own expense, making sure that the children in remote villages of Rajasthan and Chennai are receiving an education.
Yatra provides resources to carefully-vetted, local NGOs that are working in the country.
The most remote school of the three partnered by Yatra is a single teacher bridging school in the hills of Udaipur, with a makeshift roof on stone pillars. The school caters to children of 120 families displaced from the famous tiger sanctuary of Ranthambore.
Another school, near the outskirts of Tamil Nadu, in the tsunami-hit village of Cuddlelore, now schools 150 children from lower kindergarten to year 11, the medium of education being English, with most children belonging to illiterate families.
Prof Savarirayan says that integration of sports and health education in the primary schools has been another focus of Yatra Foundation, with two students in Rajasthan winning sports scholarships for further education.
“Sports is a big diffuser of caste,” says Mr Jain. “Everyone is equal on the field.”
Lion touches on some potent issues that affect children living on the streets of India, such as self-preservation, sexual abuse and exploitation, not to mention the streetsmarts employed by the young Saroo amid danger.
“The way [street children] in India put their arms around each other . . . It is their interaction that keeps them going. That was something that I really wanted to make sure I represented,” says Davis, who spent months researching and studying the children in India.
Davis, who feels extremely safe in India, finds the lack of basic amenities such as sanitisation and electricity in rural India deeply saddening.
“A little change in infrastructure can make a big difference to a great country like India,” he says.