For children new to the city, home is far away. It is not so much the geographical distance, but the way they left – in distress. Some alight from outstation trains with a small bag of clothes, others, empty-handed.
Some take to begging outside stations and inside local trains, while some fend for themselves by working at tea stalls and vehicle repair shops. Luckily, Samatol Foundation, a city-based NGO has been rescuing children for 14 years now. It has come to the aid of at least 10,000 children in need.
Eighteen children were reunited with their families in Thane last week after being away from home for more than a month. Anxious parents sat looking at each other nervously. No one spoke. Their eyes remained glued to the door. When the children walked out, the parents could not hold back their tears. The children relaxed only on seeing their families.
Megsham Reddy, 14, left his Andhra Pradesh home when his father remarried. Reddy was four when his mother killed herself. Reddy, now a class eight student was reunited with his father last week.
Gautam Siddique,13, ran away from his maternal aunt’s house in Navi Mumbai. A class eight student, Siddique wanted to study but his aunt did not let him go to school. A few weeks ago, he left his house with nothing but his clothes on his back. Boarding a train, he ended up at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
As Siddique was hungry, he sat outside the station and begged until he collected enough money to buy a vada-pav. The NGO’s volunteers noticed him there.
“Didi ko bataya mujhe padhna hai (I told the volunteer I want to study). They brought me to the shelter home. I will finish my studies and become a social worker,” Siddique said.
16-year-old Raju Naik left Nashik in search for his mother, who works as a labourer in the city.
Sarveen Pawar, 14, left after a fight at home.His father, Menmilas Pawar, is a farmer in Amravati.
“I hit him with a stick when he refused to fetch water. He left home that night. We searched for him at government-run Children’s Home for eight days but did not find him,” said Menmilas. The family came to Navi Mumbai two months ago.
Menmilas returned to his village when his wife fell sick. He took a loan of Rs 20,000 for the crops and planted soyabean. Heavy rains washed his crops away. His problems grew when he returned to Navi Mumbai to resume the search for his son. His pregnant daughter-in-law and her husband met with an accident. The child died, while the husband is in a coma.
A few days ago, Menmilas got a call from Samatol volunteers. He smiled for the first time in months. Meeting their son, the parents wept and hugged him.
“Worries will not go away, the problems will continue. But, I have my son back,” said Menmilas.
The NGO targets state-wide major railway stations, where outstation trains arrive such as CST and Mumbai Central in Mumbai. They have four shelter homes in Thane, Kalyan, Pune and Bhusawal. The NGO plans to start tracking children at the Nanded railway station too.
Once a child is found, volunteers inform the Railway Protection Force (RPF) and Government Railway Police (GRP). After signing an undertaking, the NGO brings the rescued boys to the shelter. There, the children spend a 45-day counselling session, during which, the volunteers ask them about their family.
Bajrangi Kumar, 15, is now a reformed child. Earlier, he did not have an interest in his studies, dropped out in class six and took a job at a local garment factory in Bihar. Four months ago, Kumar started smoking.
“Kumar used to drink and take drugs. He came to Mumbai with friends. We found him at CST,” said Lata Wankhede, a volunteer.
Kumar was reunited with his father. He now sports a cropped hairstyle and clean clothes. “I know how to write my name now. I will not touch bad things,” said Kumar.
The NGO enrols the children in school and provides vocational training to children aged above 15. Some try their hand at carpentry, others learn tailoring.