The incredible story of Saroo Brierley has been brought to cinema screens with the release of the 2016 film Lion, starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. The film, adapted for the big screen from Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, tells the true story of how he reconnected with his birth family in rural India, after having been adopted into an Australian family, by using Google Earth to find the village where he grew up.
Separated from his brother on a train platform at the age of five, Saroo Brierley travelled 1,000 miles from his home by train to Kolkata. Unable to speak Bengali and not knowing the name of his village, he was forced to live both in and around Howrah railway station, the country’s largest train station and the only form of shelter for hundreds of India’s street children, before being taken to a Kolkata orphanage. Fortunate enough to have been adopted by an Australian family, he was raised in Tasmania, far from the poverty of his early life. As an adult, he used Google Earth and his recollection of local landmarks to find the village where he had grown up and was finally able to reconnect with his mother in India.
Children at Ulhasnagar Station, 60km from Mumbai, by Lapjat Dhingra
Saroo Brierley’s story has been translated into an emotive and optimistic Hollywood film. In addition to the book that he has written about his experiences, he now speaks publicly about his experiences. However, the story of Brierley’s early life echoes the harsh realities faced by 250,000 children living and working on the streets of Kolkata and of those elsewhere in India. Every year, an estimated 112,000 children arrive at 35 major train stations in India. While some of these children are orphans, other leave behind their homes in the hope of a better life in one of India’s bustling cities. However, they are quickly swept up in the chaos, forced to live on the streets, in slum conditions and in India’s railway stations, where they are particularly vulnerable. These children face daily struggles including hunger and sexual and physical abuse. Furthermore, with many forced to work from the age of five, education is unattainable. Some even resort to drug abuse to cope with their terrifying situation and remain trapped in a cycle of poverty through the combination of addiction and wages that are barely enough to survive on.
It is hoped that the film will help to shed light on this issue and on the organisations working to help children on the streets of India, such as the Hope Foundation, established in 1999 to restore basic human rights to children living on the streets of Kolkata. Similarly, the charity Railway Children helps homeless young people in India, East Africa, and the United Kingdom, helping over 270,000 children living on the streets of India over the last twenty years.
The Hope Foundation and Railway Children provide services such as drug rehabilitation programmes, protection homes which take vulnerable children away from the sources of abuse and exploitation, and drop in centres which offer clean clothes, food, counselling and vocational training. Railway Children’s outreach teams even train older children with experience of living on the streets to reach out to young street children who may be wary of adults as a resort of previous abuse (which may have led them to flee their home). The producers of Lion have launched the #LionHeart campaign to bring awareness to the problem and to raise funds for partner organisations, including Railway Children, to further their work on the ground in India. Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo Brierley in Lion, said “there are organisations on the ground doing amazing work to help kids like Saroo, and the best way we can help them is by giving them the financial support they so desperately need.”
As well as highlighting the conditions faced by India’s street children, the Hope Foundation expects that the publicity from the release of Lion will prompt more adopted people from across the world to search for their birth families, whether in India or elsewhere. Tens of thousands of abandoned and orphaned children have been adopted from Indian orphanages, especially in the 1970s and 1980s and thousands of these people now live in the United Kingdom. Theresa Godly, who lives in Walton-upon-Thames, England, has been inspired by Saroo Brierley’s story to travel to India this year with a documentary team in search of her own birth mother and family. She was adopted by British parents after being given up to Shishu Bhavan, a Missionaries of Charity orphanage, days after her birth on the streets of Kolkata.
Children at the Debmalya Seva Mission orphanage in Howrah, by Biswarup Ganguly
However, India faces an ongoing adoption crisis – of the estimated 30 million orphans in the country today, only a few hundred are officially adopted every year due to tight restrictions. The Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, have in recent years opposed legislative attempts to solve the crisis due to concerns that single or divorced people who wish to adopt might be homosexuals (homosexuals are not permitted to adopt children in India). Sister Amala, who ran one of the organisation’s children’s homes in New Delhi in 2015 said of proposed new regulations to liberalise the Indian adoption system: “They are certainly not for religious people like us. What if the single parent who we give our baby turns out to be gay or lesbian? What security or moral upbringing will these children get?” The organisation has since ceased to be involved in adoptions in India. Despite efforts to make adoption more widely possible, even the issue of a child not having a birth certificate can make legal adoptions a complicated process. Because of the low rate of official adoptions (around 800-1000 per year, according to India’s Women and Child Development Minister speaking in 2015) and the high numbers of children living on the streets, the trafficking of orphaned and abandoned children and babies remains a major problem in India.
The Hope Foundation does not facilitate adoptions, but instead aims to prevent the breakup of families living in India’s slums. It does so by supporting children through education and helping mothers to find work and improve their skills (to keep their young children in school where they would otherwise have no choice but to work) and by reconnecting children with their families – even periodically – in cases where there might not always be a relative to care for them.
Though Lion failed to pick up any of the six Academy Awards it was nominated for, it has succeeded in highlighting the struggles faced by orphaned, lost and abandoned children in India. By helping to raise funds for partner charities and by underlining the considerable work done by non-government organisation on the ground in India, this blockbuster can have a great impact on the lives of street children much like Saroo Brierley.