It is a freezing winter night on the streets of Delhi. Through the swirling smog, on pavements, side streets, road dividers, under bridges, in subways, shop fronts and lofts of staircases, in railway platforms and bus stations, one can dimly make out the huddled forms of sleeping children. If one cares to count, the numbers on any night would cross 50,000 — children who live, work, play, eat, fall sick, fight and love, despair and dream, all under the open sky.
One of them is Ratul Das, a boy of 12, who sleeps with other homeless children around the water tank in New Delhi railway station. For most of the five years since he left his home in Shantipur, a small town in Kamrup district of Assam, this has been his only home.
Like many children who flee their families to escape intolerable abuse, Ratul is unwilling to talk about precisely what drove him from his home. But one night at the age of seven, he walked away decisively from his truck-driving father, mother and two younger brothers, never to return. It was an act of incredible courage for a child so young, echoed and repeated in the lives of tens of thousands of street children who decide at very young ages to bravely escape violence and abuse in their homes — alcoholic fathers, physical and sexual violence — by fending for themselves, at whatever cost.
Other children leave home so that there is a little more food for those they leave behind. Some earn to send money to their families. A few are on the streets only because they have no one in the world, having lost their parents to sickness, hunger or disaster.
Ratul walked along the railway track near his home, and boarded the first train that left the station. He alighted in Alipur in Cooch Behar. He had Rs 200, which he had stolen when he ran away from home, and bought food from the stalls. He lingered at the platform itself, and watched children, some older, some younger than himself, earning money by selling water to passengers in plastic bottles which they filled at the public taps in the station. Their clothes were grimy, often oversized shorts or trousers held up by little more than a string tied around their thin waists. They seemed carefree, with ready laughter; they walked with a swagger, and sparkling eyes shone through their grubby faces.
Ratul’s money ran out in a few days, so he decided to also try his hand at selling water in bottles left behind in railway carriages. Some of the boys in the station beat him up, but an older boy, their leader, restrained them and said that he was like one of them. They welcomed him into the gang, and taught him their trade. The bottles sold at Rs 5 each, and he easily earned around Rs 50 a day. At night, they slept on the platform, and three or four boys shared a sheet to cover themselves. They gave their savings to the stall owners for safekeeping. There was no place to store their clothes, so they would wear the same clothes until they were so dirty that they would throw them away and get a fresh set.
A couple of months later, some of the boys in the gang decided to go to Delhi, for the adventure, and because the earnings were better.
Ratul decided on impulse to go with them. They took a train first to Howrah, and then to Delhi.
Before long, Ratul learnt to earn his living by rag-picking, starting out in the early hours of the morning, with a huge sack often bigger than his own small frame, with separate pockets for bits of paper, cloth, plastic pieces, scraps of iron and other trash. At the end of the day, he sells his daily foraging to wholesale waste traders near the Shiela cinema bridge, who in turn sell to recycling units.
Some of Ratul’s friends also take up other seasonal occupations like working with caterers in the wedding season, reserving places in the trains during vacations, selling cinema tickets at higher rates, cleaning cars or taxis, buses or lorries, even trains, as vendors for tea and food stalls, apprentices in roadside automobile repair garages, carrying loads and shoe polishing. Contrary to common prejudice, only one in ten street children begs for a living, and most of these are very young. Even fewer beg as part of organised gangs.
Most of the food Ratul and his friends buy are at food stalls. On bad days, some eat at dargahs or temples, and younger ones even forage for food in rubbish heaps. Not surprisingly, they frequently fall sick. Illness is a time of trial, because no government hospital will admit these urchins in sullied clothes. But they do not go hungry in these times, because others in their gang invariably buy them food and take care of them.
There is no place to play games like other children, but Ratul and his friends always find ways of having fun. Street entrepreneurs have set up makeshift video parlours, especially on lanes where they sell their rags and waste. These are nothing more than a space marked off by faded curtains with a television set. For Rs 5, you can watch as many films as you like. The parlours are packed with the rejects of the city, street boys and lonely migrant workers, rickshaw-pullers, head loaders, construction workers, watching raptly Hindi cinema interspersed with pornographic films.
Ratul, like most street children, was introduced to the easy but deadly escape from pain and loneliness offered by soft drugs early in his days on the streets of Delhi. Thinners are readily available at any stationery shop for Rs 25 a bottle. Shopkeepers know that the children who buy these are not using them for painting, but they do not hesitate to sell to the street urchins who flock to their stores. Two bottles are enough for a day for one child. They soak a rag and inhale the fumes of the solution, and it transports them to a world free from hurt and violence. But it also destroys their lungs, rendering them vulnerable to TB. Many children graduate to hard drugs like smack, but Ratul has steered himself away. He knows that for those who succumb to smack, it is virtually the end of the road.
I asked Ratul who was the finest adult he knew. He did not hesitate. It was Obhra bhai, a pickpocket in the New Delhi station. I must confess to have been startled by his choice. Ratul explained: “He protects us from older bullies, buys medicines for us when we are sick, and discourages us when we inhale solution and other drugs. ‘I was on this platform since I was younger than you,’ he tells us. ‘I know this world. If you take to drugs, you will never escape to a better
life. You will die here. I will not let this happen to you.’”
There are winter nights when all of us drive past the huddled forms of children sleeping on the streets without a thought, let alone a word of love or dreams for the children’s future. I realise then that Ratul was probably right when he chose the pick-pocket over all of us.
Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari