When Sonu ran away from his Jhansi home and boarded a train to Delhi last month, it was his second attempt at escaping a motherless family. The 12-year-old landed at the railway station in Delhi, scavenged around for days before realising life was not rosy in the big bad world. Now he waits for a train home, not really looking forward to it. “Father drinks a lot and beats me up. I don’t want to go back but then I don’t know what else to do,” he says.
Everyday, around 50 kids, aged between 8 and 16 years, are turning up at the Delhi railway stations from remote corners of the country all by themselves, after running away from dysfunctional families, poverty, or pure social rejection, a new survey has found.
The survey was done by NGOs Sathi and Prayas, working at the stations with the assistance of Northern Railways and the Railways Protection Force to track down such kids and reunite them with families after counselling.
The NGOs found that most children turn up from UP and Bihar, and add to the station’s population of ragpickers. A lot of them are not really getting rehabilitated or returning home, says Basav Raj of Sathi. “On an average, we manage to track down 10 kids per day. Many become beggars, ragpickers, or child labourers despite our best efforts,” he says.
Everyday, at specific times when trains from UP and Bihar arrive at the station, volunteers spread out on the platforms looking for such kids. With experienced eyes, they manage to track down many. “Most look immobile amid busy crowd. Often they are the last ones to get down. In any case, all are found living at platforms,” said Afsar Ahmed Khan of Prayas.
“I followed other kids to look for food in the day and slept at the foot overbridge at night, dodging drunkards and druggies,” says 14-year-old Pervez from Bijnaur, UP. His father could not earn enough for his family of wife and three kids. Being the eldest, Pervez assumed responsibility and decided to head for Dilli, (“Where everyone gets a job”) and send money back home. Disillusioned, he has had enough of the big city now.
The NGOs had done a similar study of the New Delhi station last year, where they found at any given day, 70 children were living off platforms. “These children are exposed to drug addiction, exploitation by traffickers, local hotel owners etc,” said the study.
Realising the magnitude of this problem, the RPF and Northern Railway assist them with space and resources at stations. The RPF maintains a Daily Diary of children traced and helped every day at stations. “It is our way of attending to a social problem through available means,” said Northern Railway spokesman Rajiv Saxena.
If the children are not tracked down soon after they arrive, life at platforms takes its toll on their innocence. Many fall prey to drugs, crime and exploitation. Volunteers have found that in such cases they don’t want to go back to their families. “We send them to our extension shelters and over a period of time, make them ready for home,” Khan said.
Moreover, the help from the authorities come in handy. “We have standing instructions to our station personnel to look out for these kids and hand them over to the volunteers after registering their details,” said a senior RPF official. More than 500 children were sent back home from September last year to March this year.