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From the heart: Cops from Burtolla PS share the joy with 250 young friends

14 February, 2023 07:27:11
From the heart: Cops from Burtolla PS share the joy with 250 young friends

On a Saturday evening inside Gana Bhavan on Jatindra Mohan Avenue in central Kolkata, hundreds of children sit quietly, thoroughly immersed in a performance by ventriloquist Tanmoy Adhikary. Some of these children want to be ventriloquists themselves when they grow up, while some others want to be magicians.

Most of them come from the nearby neighbourhood of Sonagachhi, one of Asia’s largest red-light districts, with thousands of women practising their trade in hundreds of tiny rooms occupying the neighbourhood’s lanes and bylanes. While many are non-resident in the area, many others spend a lifetime here, supporting entire families with their earnings from prostitution.

Can children born to them ever hope to overcome the challenges that life throws up every day? Can they shake off the sadly persistent stigma of being born in a notorious red-light district and make their way in the world? If Burtolla Police Station and its Officer in Charge Inspector Debasis Datta have anything to do with it, the answer is yes.

Considering that the relationship between sex workers and the police in most parts of the world is uneasy at best, this effort at community policing by Burtolla PS may seem highly out of the ordinary, which it is. To be fair, the initiative encompasses the entire jurisdiction of Burtolla PS, which is obviously more than just Sonagachhi, but children from this underprivileged neighbourhood certainly play a starring role.

What is the initiative? Largely socio-educational in nature, the overarching theme is ‘Joy of Sharing’, a tag phrase coined in 2021 to describe a series of events and workshops by Burtolla PS for children of the area, propelled by Inspector Datta’s realisation that many of them were eager to prove themselves, but had no platform to do so. “I was posted to the PS in end-2020, and what I saw in Sonagachhi was largely what drove the initiative,” he says.

Images such as those of a young boy whose mother was the victim of a gruesome murder last year, of the little girl who wants to be a footballer and came to him for help, of yet another child who wants to be a magician, stay with him as he goes about his work, and he is planning workshops on art, magic, and even general knowledge. “We will buy books on general knowledge and distribute them among the children, and then turn the whole thing into a competition so that they have to read the books if they want to win. Once the bookworm bites, there’s no going back!” he laughs.

Already, nearly 250 children have come under the project’s umbrella. The idea is both to expose them to various livelihood options, as well as to teach them the value of education and staying in school. In the process, the cops and the kids have made friends out of each other. “They blow kisses whenever they see us, so we have to respond in kind!” Inspector Datta laughs again. “These kids know they can come to us with their dreams and aspirations, and we will do our best to fulfil them.”

Many of their mothers, too, have learned to overcome a lifetime of mistrust and participate enthusiastically in fun activities such as ‘Phuchka Day’, determined to help get their children out of the rut.

This already extraordinary interaction between two extremely disparate groups of people is boosted by add-on initiatives such as the community kitchen that was launched during the pandemic and has now become a celebratory ritual, where more than 1,500 Burtolla residents are fed on special days such as Poila Baisakh, courtesy the police. “I also hit upon the idea of hiring balloon sellers to further brighten things up on these days, and you should see how delighted the children are that they can have as many balloons as they wish!”

Who pays for all of it? Well, most of the money is raised internally from the PS itself, though friends and well wishers do pitch in when expenses go up, such as for the community kitchen. “We would welcome more well wishers, of course, as long as the initiative remains a purely social one,” says Inspector Datta.

So if any of you wish to help in creating a better life for children who struggle every day for basic dignity and respect, you know which kind-hearted cops to approach!

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