Independent Appeal: Banking on the future of Delhi's children

A drop-in centre is teaching young people academic and life skills so they can better survive on the streets. Andrew Buncombe reports

When he picks up the battered cricket bat and noisily plays with his friends amid the green oasis of Delhi's Elephant Park, Ajit's smile is as fast and wide as that of any other child.

But get him alone and ask about his mother or father, or the whereabouts of other relatives, and the smile disappears. He quickly becomes still. He has no idea where his parents are, he says, and he fends for himself during the days and nights in this vast, overwhelming city. Ajit, 10, is utterly alone. "I came from Bihar. I came alone on the train," he says.

Where to begin imagining the world of dangers facing a 10-year-old living alone in Delhi, or in any of the thousands of cities around the globe where children make their home on the streets?

How to consider the daily fight for survival, the battle over scraps of food and loose change, or the struggle to avoid being preyed upon? In Delhi alone, it is estimated there are 50,000 destitute children fending for themselves. The number of children working the streets and living rough with their families may be 500,000.

Already, playing in the park here in Delhi's Old City, the street-smart Ajit is more aggressive than the other children, more wild. Soon, any lingering innocence will have flown.

Yet for the last year, Ajit has been attending a children's drop-in centre that holds its sessions here beneath a green bandstand in the park, named for the large concrete elephant that stands on one side. There are sessions on reading, writing, drawing and games. But one of the valuable things the centre offers to Ajit, and the other children who live or work in this part of the city, is a safe place to put their money. By accepting whatever sums of money the children may have earned on any particular day – usually just a handful of rupees – the centre's "bank" removes the danger of it being stolen, either by adults or other street children.

It also means they can save money they would likely otherwise spend. They can even earn interest. "It started with children being allowed to make small deposits with a record being kept of their details," said Shashi Sabnavis, a programme manager with Butterflies. It is a Delhi-based organisation that receives support and funding from ChildHope UK, a British charity and one of the beneficiaries of The Independent's Christmas Appeal. "Along with this we provide financial skills and prioritising their needs. They realise that money can be used to help plan their careers."

For Ajit, who spends his afternoons washing glasses in tea shop where he earns around 2,000 rupees (£28) a month, it means he can put a little money aside in anticipation of a time when he will return to Bihar, in northern India. "There are many problems here. I am saving up to go home," he says. "I hope that when I go I will be able to take it with me. I would also like to visit India Gate, [a memorial in the centre of Delhi] and play cricket there."

The banking service operated by Butterflies has already had tangible results for 14-year-old Mohammad Amjad. When he is not at the drop-in centre, the teenager, who also came to Delhi from Bihar – a state that for decades has been wracked by poverty, poor governance and lack of investment – ends his time working at a telephone call box located under a foot bridge close to an inter-state bus terminal.

Although the spread of mobile phones has reduced business for the once-ubiquitous public phones, when people arrive in the city by bus, their phones may be out of charge or have no credit. On this fume-filled road, where the traffic roars relentlessly, the teenager takes people's coins and maintains a watch on the three differently-coloured phones laid out on the table of his stand.

"Every time I have some money I put it into the bank," says Mohammad, who says he earns around 1,500 rupees each month. "These days I don't even carry my wallet with me. Before, whenever I had money I would just travel around the city or go and see a film."

Perhaps as a result of the "life skills" sessions Mohammad has attended at the drop-in centre he appears to have an understanding of the power of money and the implications of the bank. Already he has taken out a loan for 2,000 rupees to pay for medical treatment for his sister-in-law as well as his own liver ailment. He has also got together with other street children to rent a simple room in the north of the city. "I am hoping to save up enough to pay for my own phone box on this road," says Mohammad, who came to Delhi seven years ago. "But that would need a huge investment – perhaps 30,000. I cannot hope for that in the near future."

But his friend, Sahim Singh, is already on the way to becoming a polished business. The 17-year-old, who lives at home with his parents but attends the drop-in centre sessions, pays 5,000 rupees every month to rent a public phone and employs other boys to work it when he is not there. "I joined the bank back in 2001 with just two rupees. Now I have 700 rupees in my account," he says. "More importantly than my money not being lost, having the bank means I don't spend what I have on cigarettes and tobacco."

Across the planet campaigners rally against the injustice of child labour, rightly arguing that children should be at school or even playing, rather than enduring hours, often in dangerous conditions, for pitiable wages.

On the ground in this imperfect world, however, the reality is more blurred. Those who try and provide education for children of the very poorest families say parents would stop the youngsters attending drop-in sessions if they were forced to stop working entirely. The result, with this project and many like it, is a compromise: the children attend the sessions in the morning and head out to work – in shops, collecting rags or plastic, or helping their parents – in the afternoon.

Shenaz Hussain, 10, comes into the Old City with her mother, who works here, every day. The girl spends hours at the drop-in centre and will then go off and collect old newspaper, which she sells. The money she makes gets deposited in her account.

"The biggest challenge for me is to motivate and encourage these children," says Ashima Bhattacharjee, one of the teachers who takes the sessions beneath the bandstand. "Sometimes, the parents will not let them come, or else the shopkeeper does not allow them to attend." In addition to stressing the need for children to receive education as a priority, another thing that makes this project stand out is the determination to involve the youngsters in the decision-making processes. The drop-in centres, which currently total 15, have committees of children that oversee operations. More than 2,500 children have opened accounts, while around 600 are active. The average age of those depositing money is between those aged 12 to 16 while most accounts contain no more 200 rupees. "The project is also a platform for sharing ideas. The children learn about democratic values and participation," Mr Sabnavis says.

Like most children, they also learn the need to take turns when they are playing. When it is his turn to bat, Ajit is happy once again. His cricketing heroes are the Indian stars Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and fancies himself as something of a batsman. The ball is bowled and he smiles as he swings his bat.

The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal

Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.

* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with Aids orphans in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, disturbance in East Timor and Burmese refugee sex slaves in India and Thailand.

* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes.