Ram Singh, 17, earns just one dollar from the 100 cups of tea he makes every day outside Delhi railway station, but each evening, after packing up, he goes to the bank and deposits nearly half of it. Singh holds an account at a special bank, run for – and mostly by – Indian street children, that keeps what little money they have safe and seeks to instil the idea that savings, however meagre, are important. Just one among millions of street children who rely on menial jobs for survival, Singh is determined to make his work pay some sort of future dividend. “I’m smart, but that alone isn’t enough to start a business. I save money everyday, hoping to start something of my own. Someday soon,” he said as he served glasses of India’s ubiquitous, spicy milk tea in sweltering heat at a stall near the teeming train station.
The Children’s Development Khazana (treasure chest) opened its first office in New Delhi 2001 and has since spread across the country and overseas with 300 affiliated branches in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan. Delhi counts 12 branches with around 1000 child clients aged between nine and 17. The brightly painted metal cubicles which serve as teller counters are located in shelters that provide children with free meals and sleeping mats, as well as school classes.
The branches are run almost entirely by and for the children, with account holders electing two volunteer managers from the group every six months. “Children who make money by begging or selling drugs are not allowed to open an account. This bank is only for children who believe in hard work,” said Karan, a 14-year-old “manager”. During the day, Karan earns a pittance washing up at wedding banquets or other events. In the evening, he sits at his desk to collect money from his friends, update their pass books and close the bank. “Some account holders want to withdraw their money. I ask them why and give it to them if other children approve. Everyone earns five per cent interest on their savings.”
An adult staff member is always present to collect the takings at the end of each day, depositing the cash in a nationalised bank to earn the interest component. Sharon Jacob, who works for the rights group Butterflies that set up the bank, said it aimed to give the children a genuine stake in their own future. “They work in shops as hawkers or porters but they never had a safe place to keep their money. They were always cheated of it or somebody also stole their money,”Ms Jacob said. “So this is a place where they could keep their money safely and they are also taught life skills, how to manage their finances. They are taught budgeting, they are taught democratic participation,” Ms Jacob said.
Child labour is officially illegal in India but millions of boys and girls have no choice but to earn a living to support themselves or help their families. Many move to the cities from rural areas, seeking an escape from grinding poverty or abusive homes. “I ran away from home at the age of 11 after my father beat me for stealing a kitchen appliance,” said Samir who works in a sweatshop. “For days I slept on a railway platform. I was beaten by the police and even harassed by the drug peddlers. I wanted to go back home but was ashamed of myself.” Now 14, Samir lives in the children’s shelter and holds an account in the bank. “I have saved 4000 rupees ($70.68) in the last seven months. It’s a good feeling to have some money. I will buy a shirt and a watch for my father and send it to him to seek his apology.” “He might forgive me and ask me to be with him at home.”
A group of kids in a shelter for homeless children in New Delhi have a few lessons for the world’s international bankers. They have invented a financial system of their own to save for a brighter future. In a shelter for homeless runaway teens in New Delhi, a tiny, self-starting democracy has sprung up. The residents have created an unlikely society where everything from healthcare to banking has been initiated, implemented and executed by the kids themselves. “There are children who have a job and they deposit their money in our bank and even the children who go to school save their money,” explained bank manager Satish Kumar. Satish Kumar’s peers elected him to be bank manager of this branch of the children’s development ‘khazana’ (Indian for ‘treasure’) that serves around 9,000 street children across South Asia and has 77 branches in the region.
Many of the runaway teens now have a place to safely keep their money, save for the future and take out development or welfare advances to invest in starting businesses or buying books for school. Mohammad Shah, a 12-year-old bank client, told RT that he has taken an advance three times. “The first time I took 500 rupees to buy the school uniform and other things, the second time I took the advance because my mother was sick. I took 1000 rupees and got the necessary check up done for my mother. The third time I took the advance was because I had to repay some money I had borrowed to help my father open a shop,” he said. The kids have a monthly meeting where they review applications for those who wish an advance and then, based on their track record of saving and earning, they decide who to grant the advances to and how quickly they need to pay it back.
In a time when many people would argue that the global financial system is on the brink of collapse and that the system itself might be fundamentally flawed, it seems like these teenagers from the streets of New Delhi have the whole thing figured out. They hold everyone from the account managers to the clients accountable for their financial decisions. Through meetings and discussions over lunch the children have taught each other how to save and invest in their future: “I think that if we don’t put the money in the bank then we tend to spend it on unnecessary things and waste the money. So when we save the money it can be used to do important things that may come up in the future like buying new clothes,” Sameer, a bank client, shared. It’s a sense of responsibility and survival that has shocked the supervisors of the shelters themselves and one that they say leaders around the world might want to take a look at. “They can be the super models in this whole thing because they know how to save money. They know how to utilize money for the best because they learn how to prioritize their needs, which we as adults actually don’t know,” Sharon Jacob from “Butterflies” child rights non-profit organization said.
Mohammad Shah is hoping that he can save the money he makes selling bottles of water at night to put towards his education so he can one day accomplish his goal of becoming a policeman. “I am thinking for the future as I want to save the money and do some thing useful with it when the time comes,” he says.