Mr Devaraj is a man with a vision and a mission. Mumbai has a red light district that is like something from a horror movie. Except worse. Girls as young as 10 and 11 are kidnapped from villages in northern India or Nepal and brought to Mumbai as sex slaves. They are kept in cages for 3 years where they are systematically and repeatedly tortured and raped. At the end of this time they are conditioned into sex slavery and have nowhere else to go. Many of these girls have HIV/Aids and children of their own who often contract the disease from their mothers.
For many years Mr Devaraj has been rescuing children and women from their slavery and taken them to the communities that he has built in Badlapur where they are cared for, nursed back to health and educated and trained to live normal lives. Today, I had the privilege of visiting these communities.
Mr Devaraj graciously picked me up from hotel and we drove the 2 hours through the picturesque mountains to the east of Mumbai to the first of these communities. I was greeted with many smiles and hugs and presented with a bunch of flowers after which the children sang to me whilst I drank delicious Indian tea spiced with ginger. I spent several hours with the children answering questions, looking at their art work and talking with them. The light and the happiness in their eyes are extraordinary. Just being with them is inspirational. They like jokes, and we spent time telling each other riddles. Their houses are simple but beautiful communities, spotlessly clean and maintained by the children themselves. Children as young as 3 years of age have responsibility for helping with the cleaning, the cooking and looking after one another. The highlight of the children’s week is when they can go on the computer for one hour and the older girls maintain friendships through Facebook. Do you know what Indian and Facebook have in common? Along with China, they make up the three largest communities in the world. It really struck home how ubiquitous social networking is around the world. There is a great educational programme for the young people, with individualised instruction for each child which guarantees that each child will be at an age-appropriate educational level within a year. It is truly not just an educational triumph but a triumph of humanity.
I also visited the orphanages. Often, when a sex slave dies of HIV/Aids, her children are dumped on the street. Two such children were Rhaji and Shaneer. Shaneer was three years old when her mother died and she and her one year old brother were left in the gutter. Shaneer used to make up songs for Rhaji. “Little brother, don’t cry. I will beg for food for you and I will look after you that you grow up to be a strong man”. This is how Mr Devaraj found them on the streets. A dying one-year old child with his three- year old big sister looking after him. The photographs Mr Deveraj showed me pictured two children on the brink of death. That picture was taken nine years ago. Today I met them. Shaneer is a charming and graceful girl of 12 and Rhaji is an energetic young 10 year old. They are still inseparable and happy beyond belief. The joy and the energy of all the children in the orphanage is contagious and through a mist of tears I could not help smiling. Joy like that is very infectious. I have also never been hugged by so many children in my whole life.
After eating a delicious lunch with them (Indians really know about good food, even the little ones), I reluctantly left the orphanage. Our next stop was the community for the women themselves, those who had been rescued from sex slavery. Many had HIV/Aids and today was a sad day as after a long battle, Nimi succumbed to her illness and died peacefully of pneumonia, a common complication with HIV/Aids. Although I was an outsider I was not treated as such and shared in their grief as Mr.Devaraj told them the news. They sang prayers softly amidst the silent weeping and the harsh reality of the environment from which these women were rescued really came home in a forceful way. I also visited the vocational workshop where a top Mumbai fashion designer had left her prestigious job in the city and come to Badlapur to teach the women how to make beautiful clothes and jewellery. I was presented with lovely silk trousers, handbags and earrings for my wife.
Mr Devaraj also runs a community for men who are recovered drug addicts and the educational, health and social programme that is run out of this remote, rural town community would match any major city drug rehabilitation programme for excellence of outcomes. The programme has a 98% success rate and I spent time talking with Bhandri, himself a recovered drug addict who was brought into the community 16 years as a rescued child and now heads up the programme.
It is hard to do justice to the impact and importance of this wonderful and effective humanitarian project and I do not have the skill with words or pictures to do it justice. I urge anyone who is reading this to go to www.bombayteenchallenge.com to read the real story for yourself and please make a donation. This programme saves lives and is making a real difference to Mumbai sex slaves, their children and their orphans. I am pleased to wholeheartedly commend this project to everyone. Oh, and watch Slumdog Millionaire again. An insightful and beautiful film.