Substance abuse among children in Guwahati

They don’t know the ‘Happy Birthday’ song for they never had celebrated a ‘birthday’. They don’t understand ‘loss’ for they never had much to give away or cry for. But, they wish to be loved and cared for like any other child, for they are no different.


Author with the children

W hen he was barely eight years old, *Rintu landed at the Guwahati railway station in a state of utter bewilderment. He had never thought that a childhood game of ‘hide and seek’ could change his life forever. The little one was hiding inside a berthed train at the Sivsagar railway platform when it suddenly sped off. From that fateful day, he was on his own and in the midst of strangers and wrong-doers in a city full of surprises. He slept under the bridge, in footpaths or near railway gates – lonely and longing to be held by his mother who is probably still waiting for his return. He made friends in the slum and they would go rag-picking together and in search of food inside municipality dustbins. For two months, Rintu lived a harsh life at the railway station, and fate’s cruel handshake robbed him of his innocence. The lost and vulnerable child soon got involved in glue sniffing with his friends.


I asked him how it felt when he first took a sniff of the inhalant Dendrite… He didn’t look at me, but lowering his head narrated the experience – “It burned my throat and my head felt heavy. Next moment, I remembered nothing. Poora nisah (completely intoxicated)!”


Rintu is one among the many thousands of young children still living in the streets of Guwahati – addicted to sniffing glue or huffing. Today, he lives a sheltered life at the Snehalaya Centre for Child Rights at Paltan Bazar in Guwahati. “Initially, it was good, but now it’s even better – I feel wanted and cared for here,” said Rintu as we talked on his experience living at the shelter home. A group of qualified counselors at Snehalaya have so far been successful in guiding him against the harmful effects of glue addiction. A fifth grade student at a local school in Guwahati, Rintu no longer feels the urge to sniff inhalants, but instead wants to concentrate on his studies – Assamese and English being his favourite subjects. The positivity with which this bright-eyed child spoke overwhelmed me. Rintu told me he misses his mother, but wants to be a better son when he returns home.


In the short time I spent with Rintu, I grew so fond of him that I noticed the other kids looking – Rintu was playing an android game in my phone and they were all were eager to join in. I let them have their time with my aging cell phone and they enjoyed every bit of it – clicking photographs taking random turns and browsing through the various apps installed. Father Lukose Cheruvalel, Director, Snehalaya and chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee in Assam introduced me to the rest of the children while mentioning that 18 of them were away to attend a specially designed children’s de-addiction camp at Bhakatpara in Mangaldoi town. I noticed Rintu and his friends were at their humble best in Fr Lukose’s presence and they all seemed to like him a lot.


*Hanif and Rintu are close friends and though Hanif is younger among the two, he talks almost like a confident grown-up who had been there and seen it all. It has been two months since nine year old Hanif fled from his home at Lanka in Assam’s Hojai district. He had ventured to climb a tree, rummaging through a bird’s nest to catch hold of a fledgling when his mother led him by the ears and gave him a good beating.


“I was so angry with Amma for punishing me that I left home that very day to board a train to Guwahati,” said Hanif – his face showing no regret for his decision. He stayed at the railway station for a week and took to sniffing glue with the older boys. Hanif eagerly went on to demonstrate how he sniffed glue and told me of his misadventures…


“I was once sitting at the doorway of a moving train, with my feet on the steps and was huffing Dendrite; the kick had made me so immune to any sight or sound that I didn’t remember how I fell off the steps suddenly. The next moment, I found myself at the hospital (laughs).”


I was shocked to listen to this little run-away child who took delight in reminiscing his past. He could have died or injured himself in the accident by his risky behavior, but he is as ignorant as his childhood follies to cherish the gift of life. Living in the streets has made him tough, reckless and indifferent. Hanif even confessed to chewing tobacco sometimes on his way home from school, though he has stopped sniffing glue. He asked me not to show him on television as that would make his mother know of his whereabouts and she might come looking for him. He does not wish to go back home.


Every child I met with at Snehalaya had a story to tell – of a past they are happy to leave behind and a present they are thankful for. These children were once the victims of volatile substance abuse, but saved in time. Snehalaya, the social service programme of Don Bosco Society has over the years rescued hundreds of children living in the streets of Guwahati and has helped them find a respectable place in the society, enabling them to stand on their feet through quality education and training. The counseling programmes initiated by Snehalaya have helped these children to adapt and adjust with other children of their age-group.


Father Lukose is aware of the big challenges that lie ahead of him, but is nevertheless, hopeful – “Inhalants are cheap and easy to get and they are highly detrimental to a child’s health. Spreading awareness about the bad effects of volatile substance abuse among vulnerable children is the need of the hour. There should also be restrictions on the sale of such substances to children. I hope one day dendrite sale in small packaging will be banned. It is being abused by a large number of children living on the streets,” he said.


According to a survey published in September 2103 by Snehalaya, Guwahati in collaboration with Don Bosco National Forum for Young at Risk (YAR), Delhi and the Don Bosco Research Centre, Mumbai – a total number of 5534 children are living in the streets of Guwahati, distributed in 60 wards across 6 zones and a total of 2628 children are found to be under the age of 12.


Zone wise distribution of children less than 12 years:

Dispur 171 107 278
Central 242 164 406
East 180 106 286
South 161 140 301
          West         634 412 1046
Lokhra 174 137 311
TOTAL 1562 1066 2628


The survey pointed out that a majority of children in the younger age group were found living in the West Zone and the Central Zone – the west zone comprising of localities like Adabari, Bharalumukh, Bhootnath, Kamakhya and Maligaon and the central zone with Pan Bazar, Paltan Bazaar, Fancy Bazar and Uzan Bazaar as the core areas. While 53% stayed in the slum areas of the city, the rest lived in the streets, at railway stations or under the bridges. About 8.4% of the street involved children in Guwahati live alone – without parental guidance or any supervision and they are the most vulnerable of the lot.


It is not only poverty that makes children end up living in the streets, but a host of other reasons including broken homes, family fights, sibling rivalry or lack of interest in studies. While interacting with the children in Snehalaya, I learned that every child hailed from a family with a single parent or both and a number of siblings. With poverty afflicting a struggling family, giving individual attention to every child becomes a problem and it is then that they go astray, develop negative behavioral traits and an intolerant attitude towards their family members, often forcing them to make hasty decisions.


A run-away child, who lives in a hostile environment without any guidance or care, easily falls prey to wrongdoings. These children are faced with a need to survive and fight a battle with cold, hunger and fear – they get addicted to volatile substances, predominantly inhalants like glue and paint thinners, huffing or sniffing to forget pain. While many get addicted due to peer pressure, some do it just for pleasure or experimentation and showing-off among friends. Once addicted, their personalities change and it becomes difficult to get them into living a normal life again.


It’s a wake-up call for all conscious citizens of Guwahati – think about a child who begs for food; don’t ignore him. Your indifference might only lead him to sniff glue to forget his hunger and sleep through the night. Think about a child who begs for money; don’t send him off without a word of guidance. He might be lonely and in need of direction. Think about the child who offers to clean your car windows; he is working for a living! A little of compassion can help save a tender life and doing our bit, we can actually contribute towards building a child-friendly Guwahati.

*Names changed

Karishma Hasnat

Karishma Hasnat

Karishma Hasnat is a journalist with a proven track record in print and broadcast media. She started with 'The Sentinel' in 2005 and had been associated with the regional television channel, News Live, for six years. A writer and an animal enthusiast, Hasnat has a keen interest in photography.