Mumbai: Two decades after it started out as a field project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai-based non-profit Childline India Foundation (CIF) now runs one of the world’s largest helpline services for children in distress.

In the year ended 31 March, the organization received 9 million calls from across the country. It currently operates in 400 cities and towns, works with over 800 partner non-governmental organizations (NGO) in these places and responds in over 25 languages. Since inception, it has serviced over 50 million calls and helped over 5 million children, according to data provided by the organization.

Childline India Foundation was a winner at the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s SM4E awards in the Communication, Advocacy and Development Activism category.

CIF was the brainchild of social entrepreneur Jeroo Billimoria, who was then working as a professor with TISS. In 1996, Billimoria conducted an experimental project under the titled ‘Street Child Helpline Project’ with an aim to reach out to children in distress. Around 12 people, mostly students of TISS, worked on the project in a small room at a municipal school at Mumbai’s Nana Chowk.

Inspired by emergency helplines for children in the US, the project came up with a toll free 1098 number for the Childline Service.

In the first year, it received 6,000 calls from street children and adults seeking intervention on issues such as abuse and child labour. It also got calls from people seeking help to get food and medication through its partner NGOs.

“The model was that we would have local NGOs in every city who understood that city very well and we would get calls. We would then reach out to the NGOs closest to the child and somebody from the NGO would physically reach within an hour. So, it’s like a last-mile emergency service. Something like the 911 model of the US," said Nishit Kumar, head of communication and strategic initiatives, CIF.

Three years after it started as a project, CIF broke away from TISS and got registered as a non-governmental organization.

The foundation is now run by a 15-member governing body, which includes secretaries and joint secretaries of the ministry of women and child development among others.

“Local NGOs whom we partner with either ran a day care centre or a shelter home. They either ran a facility for special children or some child services or the other. So, you have to actually take them on board, identify and carve out a Childline team amongst them and then fund the Childline team," Kumar said.

The organization currently gets most of its funding from the ministry of women and child development under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), and plans to cover 600 towns or districts over the next few years.

Its annual government funding is around 75 crore. It also raises funds through campaigns, workshops and receives grants from corporates.

Kumar said the issues addressed by CIF have expanded.

“Our intervention protocols are evolving. Today, we have a lot of child sexual abuse cases and this is changing the intervention scenario and landscape radically. Street children are very much part of the landscape but calls from street children are dropping mainly because they have no access to a mobile phone and the number of public call booths are also dwindling," Kumar said.

Currently, the organization works with 8,000 people, of which 400 are directly employed while the rest are with its partner NGOs as Childline team. Along with IT firm Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), the foundation also runs six childline contact centres in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai. The centres receive the calls, respond to them; cases requiring direct intervention are handed over to the network of partners.

In order to address the issue of lack of mobile phones among street children, the foundation is planning to roll out a pilot project where it would put up self-automated kiosks with touch screens in various railway stations, hospitals and other public places. Through this kiosks, a child can speak to a staff member without dialing any number. It would also capture biometric information, photos and video/voice chat facility.

CIF is also working with TCS to launch a mobile phone app that would allow children to send distress signals using the phone’s GPS. The app, which is expected to roll out this year, will also have an emergency alarm that would send out a message to its staff. “The app would be available in all the platforms including Windows, iOS and Android. We will be going to telecom service providers and asking them to put it on their websites, and in their sim cards. We have got lot of cooperation from the telecom sector," Kumar said.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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