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Interview: Paul Sunder Singh, founder, Karunalaya, Centre for Street and Working Children in Chennai, India

15 September 2023

‘Boys and girls play together, especially cricket, but girls are more often forbidden to play sport’

Tom Merilion

Karunalaya is an organisation working since 1995 with street children and their families in Chennai, India. We provide protection and shelter for the most vulnerable, and train communities to advocate for their own rights, wanting to give street-connected children the same opportunities all children deserve, including education and sports.

The Street Child Cricket World Cup was first run in 2019 by Street Child United, a UK charity that also runs the Street Child World Cup for football (News, 25 April 2014); and our partner, Amos Trust, was one of the original founders of the Street Child World Cup, back in 2010. Karunalaya has been representing India in their football and cricket world cups, and an athletics event in 2016, ahead of the Olympics, ever since 2014.

These events are for children who lived or worked on the streets to play sports, to represent their country, to meet others from around the world with shared experiences, to speak up for children’s rights in a unique congress, and to change the world’s perception of street-connected children. It’s been a decade of incredible opportunities for our young people and our organisation, and helped us to campaign for a better future for street children in India.

We were the winning team in the inaugural Street Child Cricket World Cup in 2019, lifting the trophy at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London; so we’re going into the 2023 event as reigning champions. It’s hosted in our city, Chennai, and we are very excited.

It would be great if we had more space, but we’ve managed to tailor cricket. We use a tennis ball, which helps us in smaller spaces; we’ve set up a space at our centre with a covered net, and we also take the children to the grounds locally to play cricket. And, of course, children play cricket in the street. Cricket is played all over India on the streets: it’s a common sight. The ball goes everywhere.

Some street children in Chennai are children we meet who arrive alone at the railway station. Some are fleeing abuse; others are sent for work in the fishing industry or doing odd jobs, some from several hundreds of miles away. Some live on the streets with their families; some have parents; some do not. Some families have lived on the street for several generations. We have outreach teams to work with all of these children, who are mostly homeless, with no access to basic amenities. We help them access school and enjoy their right to play.

We have around 100 children in our sports programme, which includes both football and cricket. We started with 50 kids playing cricket, but now, as we approach the Street Child Cricket World Cup, there are around 18 to 20 who are regularly playing, and are so focused on cricket. We want to help all 500 children we regularly support to play sport, but there are barriers.

Boys and girls play together, especially cricket, but girls are more often forbidden than boys to play sport. Pavement-dwelling communities can be very conservative, and, when girls reach puberty, it’s a big challenge to convince parents to allow them to join sports any more. We counsel families about girls’ rights. The girls always want to play, but parents are afraid that others will speak ill about their child — that she isn’t behaving appropriately, and must be kept with the family and not let out. It takes time to encourage change. Girls who are in Karunalaya’s care because they have no parents, or they need protection, are freer to play, because our staff accompany them.

Karunalaya takes up a lot of my time — it’s more than full-time — but, to pay the bills, I’m a lawyer.

Sport in general is a passion for me. I’m not a cricket player myself, but I love to help children play sports. I have a passion to identify the natural talents of the children, and to nurture them. When I was younger, I was an athlete, and played football and basketball at college. Cricket is India’s national love, and at Karunalaya our coaches are passionate about cricket.

When I was young I wanted to become a police officer, and studied criminology. It all changed when I got involved in social work with a youth centre [while I was studying for] my Master’s. I founded Karunalaya in 1995.

Later, I trained as a lawyer to fight for people’s rights. Being a lawyer and helping children in vulnerable situations go together well.

I work very long days every day, waking up at 5 a.m. and starting work early, but I do try to go for a walk most mornings. Sundays are more relaxed for me. I go to church and take a restful nap.

Naturally, I get angry when something is not right, or unjust, for the children or the families we work with. There is a Tamil saying, “Kothithu ezhum unarvu”, which translates to something like “boil and rise up against social injustice”. When children or families come and tell us what has happened to them, that’s what I do. With experience, I’ve started to go slower, not going into a fight straight away but working to make people understand, meeting people to explain the injustice and the ways it needs to change.

My job is different every day, and, even as the Secretary, I get involved in so many different things, which means it’s never dull, and often very fun. Recently, the man who used to cut the boys’ hair stopped coming. The schools were complaining; so I took the scissors and did the job myself. The boys were happy, and it was fun; so now I’m the hairdresser, too.

I’m so happy when we can help the children make progress, and feel proud. The girls in our cricket team couldn’t even throw a ball, initially. I was with them, helping them to practise these skills between their coaching sessions to help them practise the basics.

There are loads of sounds I love. The laughter of the children; the singing and “thank-you claps” that they do at the end of activities, or when they want to appreciate people. Karunalaya is a loud place with a lot of wonderful sounds.

I believe in God. I never had these particular plans in my life; I never knew I was going to achieve these things with Karunalaya; but I’m positive that anything we’ve achieved — it was meant to happen. Difficult things happen (we are always facing challenges). We feel hopeless, sometimes. But, slowly, hope builds, and we see things change. Sometimes, things have to end, and we have to trust that something better will come along; lots of things are out of our hands, but we don’t lose hope.

I usually pray, keeping all this work in my mind. I say to God, “This is not mine. Even though I founded it, it is not mine: it belongs to God. Let God’s will be done here for every child’s life, that they are safe and protected.” I include in my prayers all those I care for, my own family, and friends in India and abroad.

We want anyone coming into Karunalaya to be those whom God wants for us — for example, friends such as Amos Trust and Street Child United visiting us in Chennai years ago, and transforming our organisation.

I would love my parents to be locked in a church with me — both my father and mother. My father passed only last year. They were the ones who taught me to pray. My mother taught us that, without reading the Bible first, we weren’t allowed to eat our dinner. We had family prayers twice a day: at 4 a.m. — they used to wake us up — and then before dinner, too. Their prayers and guidance have instilled a lot of values in me. I miss them a lot, and it would be amazing to spend time with them. They’d be very happy to see the work that I am doing. My mum died in 1997, and we only started Karunalaya in 1995; so she didn’t get a chance to see it.

Paul Sunder Singh was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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