Thirty kilometres from Nithari, at the ever-buzzing railway station in the heart of New Delhi, no one notices when the scruffy homeless children come in from all parts of India, escaping poverty or angry at a beating from their parents.
No one notices when they go missing, either.
“Every so often, children disappear from the tracks, and we have no way of finding out whether they have gone off to some other city, been murdered by one of the gangs, or have met a worse fate,” says Habibur Rahman of Khushii, a voluntary group that runs a day care with vocational training courses for the children.
The truth about Nithari’s brutalised children was brought to light because of parents looking for their missing children. But there are many in the city who probably have no one looking for them.
Two years ago, Prince, then 12, left his home in Darbhanga, to escape an abusive father. “My father was an alcoholic. He beat me with a stick for not showing enough interest in my studies,” he said. Since then, the station has been his home.
Staffers of the Salaam Balak Trust, another NGO that runs night and day shelters in the area, say that dozens of children end up at the New Delhi and Mumbai railway stations after leaving their homes. At any time, there are at least 250 to 300 children in and around the New Delhi station, they said, declining to be named.
Many turn to petty crimes like pickpocketing to feed themselves, often tutored by ‘zonal’ gang leaders. Thus begins a journey of addiction, crime and violence. Others make their living by collecting garbage and empty water bottles from around the tracks.
“I make anywhere from Rs 100 to Rs 200 a day. I get fifty paise for every empty mineral water bottle,” says Chhotu Das.
They also have to live with inter-gang brawls, turf wars and abusive policemen.
For some, there is worse to face: sexual exploitation.
After much coaxing, a frightened 12-year-old boy said he was recently lured by a policeman. “He took me to the garbage dump close by and did “dirty things” to me,” he said.
Ten-year-old Rahul, with a festering wound on his left foot, said one of the porters cornered him, asking him to sleep in his quilt and do “dirty things” to him. “I jumped from the roof and ran,” he says, gesturing towards another boy.