They live like nobodies. They die like nobodies. You don't even know they exist. They answer to names that aren't theirs—usually informal first names derived from an identifying or peculiar personal trait and given by each other.
These are Delhi's homeless. While the adults among them have night shelters to go to, children without families have to fend for themselves on the streets. In a survey, NGO Childhood Enhancement through Training and Action (Chetna) found more than 10,000 children in Delhi living on the city's streets—alone.
Take Govinda, a 14-year-old and a street urchin. He has no family in Delhi and sleeps on the streets outside Nizamuddin Railway station. "Ek hi kambal hai mere paas. Main aur mera ek dost, hum dono station ke bahar hi sote hain (I have just one blanket. My friend and I sleep outside the station)," says Govinda.
While setting up shelters for the homeless, the Delhi government seems to have forgotten the homeless children. Of its 76 temporary shelters, not one is dedicated for children.
One centre for children is at Fatehpuri, near Chandni Chowk, where children undertake activities—aimed mostly at educating them—in the day and stay at night. But this arrangement does not suit many teenagers living around New Delhi and Old Delhi Railway stations.
"We just want a roof above our heads at night. We cannot stay at the centre as we have to work in the morning," says Anwar, 13, who lives on Paharganj's streets.
Most homeless children live outside railway stations and bus stands where they can find odd jobs easily. The children who sleep outside Nizamuddin Railway Station have tried to go to the night shelter at Sarai Kale Khan, but were turned away.
"At times we are not allowed to enter as the shelter is for families. When they do allow us, the adults make us do their work and snatch our money," said Anwar Ali, 15, a rag picker.
Without anything to keep them warm, many street children are addicted to sniffing the cheap and easily available thinner used in correction fluid.
"I started sniffing thinner two years back. It helps me keep warm in winters. We can't make do with just a thin blanket, can we?" says Deepak, who lives outside Sarai Kale Khan bus stop.
"Most of them are addicted to drugs. The thinner is the most common. If we give them a place to sleep, then perhaps the NGOs working with children can help de-addict them," says Sanjay Gupta, director, Chetna.
Government officials, meanwhile, say the shelters for the homeless can be used by the children too. "The girls can go to the shelters for women and the boys can go to the men's shelters," said a Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board official.