India's railway children
Homeless children find community - and a precarious existence - living in Bombay's railroad stations
(Page 2 of 2)
Santosh arrived in mid-May. Wearing a tiny military uniform and a serious expression, he is vague about his origins, saying only that he came to Bombay to work. During the day, he sweeps trains with a bundle of hay and asks for handouts.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Ketn carries a shoeshine brush and a tin of black polish. He says he moves freely among the city's rail stations, avoiding the first-class coaches, where passengers are intolerant of beggars.
Do they ever play, have fun? The boys look at each other and shake their heads. No.
The crowds at the stations provide the children with anonymity and a chance to make a living through handouts and odd jobs, but they are also filled with dangers.
A brothel agent, labor recruiter, or other predator usually approaches children within 15 minutes of their arrival, according to Saathi.
To maintain a 24-hour lookout, NGOs enlist the help of vendors, bathroom cleaners, ticket checkers, and others who work in the station. "If you take away all the people who are passing through, there is actually a community there, and they understand who are the new faces," says Roshni Nair, a Saathi cofounder.
Once new children are identified, reuniting them with families can be difficult. Many come from close-knit rural villages, where there is a strong stigma associated with runaways.
"The other families think, 'Obviously this family is doing something wrong or the child would not have gone away,' " says Mrinalini Rao, a representative of Railway Children, a British organization supporting children living in stations. The result is often a reluctance by families to accept returning children.
Despite the perils of station life, the children who have found a precarious home in Mumbai Central may be the fortunate ones. Those who end up in one of Bombay's thousands of "pavement communities" (living on sidewalks, in parks, or in empty lots) are at higher risk for disease, starvation, and sexual abuse.
In the stations, the boys are underthe domain of the railway police. In the past, the Railway Protection Forcehad a mandate to clear stations of unaccompanied children. "All of them were perceived as criminals," says Mr. Nair. "They were seen as perpetrators rather than victims of a system."
That attitude began to change in the late 1990s, says Gupta. A national 24-hour hot line for runaway children opened in 1996 and receives 1,000 calls a day in Bombay alone from people who find runaways and lost children and call to have them picked up and taken care of.
In 2000, the government passed the Juvenile Justice Act, which outlines the rights of children and mandates the government to work with NGOs to address the problems of homeless children. Incidents of violence against the kids are now rare, and commuters who see a child being beaten are more willing to interfere than before.
Despite the changes, serious threats to children remain, such as police taking bribes from brothel agents, says Gupta, who patrols Mumbai Central daily.
The presence of NGOs does more than help the children. Although adolescent boys, some of whom work the trains in groups as pickpockets and necklace-snatchers, are still a major problem, railway police say petty theft by younger children has declined in recent years. The feeling among observers is that children who are looked after by someone are less desperate and more law-abiding.
In an interview, Railway Police Commissioner Shrikant Sawarkar denied the existence of juveniles making their permanent homes in railway stations. But railway police routinely use station children to fetch tea, clean stations, and do less pleasant tasks. On a recent afternoon at Bombay's Thane railway station, two officers ordered a group of station kids to remove from the tracks the body of a woman struck by a train a few minutes earlier.
Talking about the future does not come easily to these youngsters. At Thane, some of the children say they want to be mechanics or drivers.
Vishal Mohammed, who has lived at Thane for 10 years and believes he is 17 or 18 years old, is matter-of-fact about his prospects. He was diagnosed with polio as an infant and pushes himself around the station on calloused legs folded beneath him.
"I should be a telephone operator," he says. "That's the right job for a person in my condition."
But most of these children cannot hope for a better life outside the station. Back at Mumbai Central, Siraj says he has no plans to leave. "Living in the station is easier than living in the road."