Subramaniam Hariharan is arguably the only man in Mumbai who stops and talks to street-children who seem lost and then helps them find the families they left behind. Born in Palakkad in Kerala, 50-year-old Hariharan runs a call centre. A runaway child himself, he sees himself in the children wandering on railway stations, sleeping in isolated corners and working at shops to afford their next meal. Today, he works with an NGO to ensure other Hariharans find their way home.
“We find an average of five boys at railway stations in and around Mumbai daily. We estimate 20 come to the city daily and 15 slip away,” said Hariharan, speaking from his Dadar office.
Hariharan said he first ran away when he was 12, after he lost a pencil. “I stayed away for 12 hours. I ran away again when I was 14 and came to Mumbai,” he said.
On reaching Byculla, the hungry teenager walked into the market and discreetly slipped four carrots into his bag. After breakfast, he reached Juhu beach, where he spent the night. The next morning, he left for Pune, where his aunt stayed. He reached her house but on changing his mind, he walked to a tire repair shop and got a job there.
On his fourth day at the shop, Hariharan met a truck driver who was headed to Trichur. Having just received a raise of Rs1, Hariharan decided to go with him. When the truck reached Palakkad, he alighted, saying he wanted to go back to where he belonged. His family met him at the railway station and took him home.
The short trip encouraged him to plan a serious escape from home at 17. He left home with his savings of Rs 1,600, this time telling his parents. Hariharan reached Madras, where he worked at a flea market before taking up a job as a waiter. He then sold watches on the roadside. After around 11 months of working menial jobs, he saved enough money to set up a paan shop with a friend.
“A few months later, I left for Palakkad, where my brother spotted me. I never ran away after that,” Hariharan said. He went on to complete his studies and returned to Mumbai to start a business.
In 2014, a boy on the street caught Hariharan’s attention. The child’s small hands begging for a sandwich jolted him into reality, he said.
“My teenage days came back to me. I had closed that chapter, though it was still etched in my memory,” he said.
That day, the boy got his sandwich and Hariharan joined Samatol Foundation, while starting Street Children Foundation. He was back on the streets, this time to help the underprivileged.
According to the NGO, the majority of the children come to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Orissa comprising of 70 per cent of the lot. 10 per cent of the children come from rural Maharashtra while Gujarat, Kerala and Punjab’s children form a small fraction.
Hariharan ensures that orphaned children receive education.
He makes sure the children do not forget their roots. “If a boy from West Bengal is found in Mumbai, we will send him to an orphanage in Kolkata so he will grow up in the place where he was born.”
The NGO has two volunteers who had run away as children. Today, they have devoted their life to helping other runaway children.
A few parents too assist the group. When Chandu Gaikwad’s 12-year-old son Ranjeet ran away, he spent more than Rs 60,000 searching for him over six months. Chandu could barely afford Rs 10,000 a month. When the NGO contacted him, Chandu was able to return home with his son. He now helps them track children in his home town.
The founder of the NGO, Vijay Jadhav ,and Hariharan share a common dream, “We want to reach a stage where if a person looks at a street child, he doesn’t walk away, but walks towards the child to help.”
“These children should not be ignored. One week of love and affection for a child will inspire him in an unimaginable way. He will do something meaningful with his life,” said Hariharan.