Dressed in torn clothes, his arm bandaged, Rahul, 8, is keenly turning the pages of The Magic Porridge Pot, the English translation of a German fairytale and asking his teacher questions about the book. The teacher, Mohini, is patiently trying to answer all his queries.
There is nothing unusual about it except that the place is not a play school, but the police station.
For many years now, the porch of the police station at New Delhi railway station has been serving as an informal school-cum-day care centre for children who are rescued every day from the railway station by the Delhi police and the Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), an NGO. The porch has almirahs filled with books, notebooks, toys and several board games.
The place plays host to about 25 children every day — either runaway, abandoned or lost — who end up at New Delhi railway station. It is a place where one can confront heart- breaking stories of broken shildhoods — and also heart-warming stories of railway children trying to carve a better future for themselves.
Rahul was found roaming on the platform earlier in the day by the SBT’s outreach workers at the New Delhi railway station. Talk to him and the chirpy child shows no signs of nervousness. “I wanted to see Delhi, and so I and a friend of mine boarded a train yesterday in Vanarasi, where I live. My friend got down at one of the stations, leaving me to fend for myself. But I don’t care, I am happy here,” says Rahul. And did he tell his parents that he was going to Delhi? “I did and they let me go,” he says.
In fact, Rahul’s biggest concern when we met him was not where he would go next, or when he would be reunited with his parents, but how soon he could play carrom with a boy he had just made friends with at the police station’s day care centre run by SBT.
Curiously, his new-found friend happens to be his namesake — Rahul, 11, from Sultanpuri, Delhi , who was also found aimlessly roaming at the New Delhi railway station the same day. “I boarded a bus at Sultanpuri to Noida but the bus brought me here at the railway station,” says the older Rahul.
“We work in close coordination with SBT; the police rescue the maximum number of missing children from New Delhi railway station, where 289 trains arrive and depart every day,” says Om Prakash Pawar, SHO, New Delhi railway station.
But not every child who comes to the police station’s informal school and day care centre is from outside Delhi. A lot of them live at New Delhi station and areas around it. For them, a railway station is like a small township with toilets, parked trains, water, and free food—and they come to the police station for informal studies.
Take for example, Mustakim, 13, who left his house in Loni in Ghaziabad six months ago and started living at the New Delhi railway station. He says he ran away because his brother would beat him every day. He now picks up used bottles from the trains and sells them to a nearby junk dealer, making about Rs 100 a day.
“I eat the leftovers from Rajdhani and Shatabdi every day, I am fine living at the station and do not want to go back home,” says Mustakim. He knows the names of all Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains and their arrival and departure timings.
The SBT’s outreach workers spend time at the station scanning platforms, the trains and other areas of the stations for children who may have ended up at the station, either lost or abandoned. “We bring any child who is unaccompanied by an adult to our day care centre at the police station, it’s not always easy to convince them,” says, Makan Singh, one of the outreach workers.
Once the child comes to the day care centre, a case entry is made in the police station’s daily dairy, and then the child is sent for a medical examination and referred to the Child Welfare Committee. The NGO first tries to unite them with their families, and if that is not possible, it adopts them.
“In sixty percent of the cases, the children do not want to return to their homes. In the first place, many of them run away because they are regularly beaten by their family members. Many want to go to school but were pushed into labour by their parents, and many others leave homes because of sheer poverty and hunger,” says Parvati Patni, executive director, SBT.
In fact, for many such runaway children, this police station at New Delhi railway station has been a platform that marked the beginning of a life- changing journey. “A lot of such children whom we adopted were good at studies and have become fashion designers, photographers, and engineers.”