New Delhi: The national capital’s freezing winters bring an agonising time for the homeless. For many, especially children, the only way to escape the cold is to inhale a variety of sedatives to keep themselves numb in an attempt to fight the chilly weather.
About 80 percent of the capital’s 50,000 homeless children use diluter fluid, boot polish, ‘beedis’, rubber tubes and even cough syrups to fight the cold, say activists.
“Homeless kids aged between 6 and 18 widely sniff whiteners, particularly in winter, to get high and escape the cold. A child sniffs around five bottles of whiteners a day on very cold days. It numbs their bodies and they do not feel cold,” Sanjay Gupta, director of Chetna, a city-based NGO working for homeless children, told IANS.
A survey by Chetna in 2009 conducted in 13 locations of Delhi found that the diluters used in whiteners are sold in the capital for around Rs.20 every day.
“The whiteners come in a pack with a correction fluid and a diluter. At times certain people only ask for cheap diluters. So, while an entire pack of diluters costs Rs.26, a bottle costs around Rs.11. A bottle of concentrated diluter costs around Rs.20. We make profit by selling diluters alone and there is a good demand for it,” said a retail shop owner, pleading anonymity.
A string of shops selling these diluter fluids can be seen near the alleys of Nizamuddin Dargah and railway station in central Delhi.
For 11-year-old Shiksha, who lives near Jama Masjid, a thin cardigan and a cotton trouser are not enough to fight the biting cold. When the chilly, windy weather hits the capital, Shiksha is not able to resist diluter fluid and sniffs it so that she can sleep well.
“Once the wind sweeps by, it gets difficult to breathe; my eyes burn and nose waters. After my sister and others insisted on sniffing diluters, I started using them. Now I cannot do without them,” Shiksha confesses.
According to data collected by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in 2009, there has been a substantial increase (from 31 percent in 2008 to 40.5 percent in 2009) in the use of volatile solvents among children.
“The easy availability of these items is the biggest problem. Diluters don’t come under scheduled drugs and are easily available. It is the responsibility of retailers to curb this. Apart from diluters, certain children also take pills which they call ‘dus number ki goli’ (The number 10 pill),” says Ankita Sharma, a volunteer working for an NGO.
Meanwhile, Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), an NGO working for the homeless, says that making addicted children undergo a rehabilitation programme is a daunting process.
“Children get addicted to substances such as correction fluid after using it one or two times. Making them quit these also takes almost the same time. Relapse is common,” says Sanjay Kumar, director (operations) of AAA.
According to NGOs, rehabilitation and de-addiction procedures cost anything between Rs.5,000 and 10,000 for a child per month and NGOs don’t have the resources to afford such expensive treatments.
While the levels of substance addiction are on the rise, for the first time the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) under the Women and Child Development Ministry is planning to create awareness among children on the harmful effects of such inhalers.
“We need to have some kind of legal control over the sale of inhalers like ‘Erazex’ which are easily available even in small shops,” one of the NCPCR members working for the programme told IANS on condition of anonymity.
A team led by Vinod Kumar Tikoo, member of NCPCR, will carry out a three-month study across 29 states and 200 districts on the issue. As many as 5,000 streetchildren will be surveyed as part of the programme.
“This study is the first step taken by the government, which had been silent for years on the issue. After the survey, hopefully some productive guidelines will come up to curb this practice,” Gupta added.