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India's railway children

Homeless children find community - and a precarious existence - living in Bombay's railroad stations

By Andrew StricklerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2004


At Mumbai Central station in Bombay, a thousand tired passengers disembark from an overnight train. Businessmen with briefcases, barefoot laborers, and wealthy families followed by luggage- toting servants make their way through crowds of waiting passengers seated on the station's marble floor, toward a swarm of taxis outside.

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As they disperse, a group of about 25 young people remains behind. Ranging in age from 10 to 20, they are among the permanent residents of Mumbai Central. For them - and countless other children across India who have no other place to live - the station is much more than a transit point; it is an escape from a troubled home, a meager livelihood, and a veil of protection from the chaotic streets of overcrowded Bombay (Mumbai).

On a sweltering May afternoon, Siraj, who has wavy black hair and the taut muscles of a luggage porter, tells his story as he waits to unload a train that is already six hours late. Nearly a year ago, he hopped a train 1,100 miles away in Calcutta after his mother, overwhelmed by his father's illness, kicked him out. "I just got on the train and thought I would find work," he says.

Siraj came to Bombay because that was where the train was headed. He stayed because he had nowhere else to go.

It is difficult to estimate the number of children like Siraj who live in Bombay's stations; their mobility and the overwhelming number of homeless defy surveys. UNICEF estimated in 1994 - the latest year for which figures are available - that India has 11 million homeless children, with a significant percentage living in urban areas.

An estimated 30 unaccompanied children arrive at the city's 125 train stations every day, according to Aasara, a nonprofit organization that supports Bombay's homeless children. They're attracted by the perception that there must be jobs available in the country's most prosperous city, and also by the image of glamour that gives Bombay the reputation of being the Los Angeles of India.

At many of the stations a revolving community of kids come and go. Many of these new arrivals leave the station to live on the streets, end up in red-light districts, or are found and helped by a nongovernmental aid organization (NGO). Some are arrested and end up in juvenile detention.

In Mumbai Central and Thane railway stations, the communities of children are more stable, mostly because of the greater presence of NGO representatives, who do what they can to provide food, classes, and clothing. Also, because Mumbai is the terminus for long-distance trains, there is steady work.

Barefoot and dressed in shorts and ragged T-shirts, the boys have become a necessary, though not always welcome, part of stationlife. Most, like Siraj, work as porters, loading and unloading burlap- covered bales of linens from the trains and carrying luggage for passengers.

Those too small for such jobs clean trains, sell refilled water bottles, and beg. During slow times, they hang out in video parlors to escape into a Bollywood movie. Many also inhale ink thinner from rags, the cheapest "high" available. At night, they sleep in small groups on sheets of cardboard laid out on the platforms.

Life in the station, Siraj says, is unpredictable. On his best days, he makes 200 rupees, a little more than $4. Other days he earns nothing. Occasionally, vacationing families will hire him as a temporary servant; sometimes he is paid, sometimes not.

Siraj says he misses home, where he was at least allowed to rest. "Here the police are always kicking me awake," he says.

Like runaways worldwide, some of these children have fled abusive parents, starvation, or worse. Others leave home for seemingly minor reasons. Bishu, who's 18, recounts jumping a train near his home in the northeastern city of Tripura after being shamed by a public scolding from his parents, who were angry about his relationship with a girl.

Some runaways are drawn to Bombay's glitz, land of Bollywood and shining shopping malls. Still others become separated from their families on a train and simply ride until the last stop.

At Mumbai Central, representatives from Saathi, another nonprofit organization supporting homeless children, provide the young residents with a benevolent adult presence. Although there are group homes available, station kids fear institutional life, says Washington Gupta, a Saathi outreach worker.

"In an organization, they have to follow some rules," Mr. Gupta says. "These guys want to go to the films, see adult movies. They want to be free."

But being free has a high price for these children.

Santosh and Ketn, two of the station's youngest inhabitants, wander the platforms together. Both 10 years old, the pair look impossibly small in the immensity of the station.