India's railway children

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Community keeps an eye on the station children

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.

What does the future hold?

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."

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