They survive on a hand-to-mouth basis every day, barely earning enough through begging or stealing to fill their stomachs and continue with their drug habits. Street children constitute the most vulnerable and far-flung segment among the city's children to access basic education.
"For these children, most of whom are migrants, education is the last priority. They have to focus on surviving on the streets,” said Hoshang Irani, trustee of Society Undertaking Poor People's Onus for Rehabilitation (SUPPORT), which focuses on rehabilitating drug-addicted children from the streets.
"It is only when the street children are rehabilitated that they get any semblance of a secure and safe environment and can then be enrolled in schools for formal education,” he said.
The organisation rescues about 100 children every year from the streets, usually to rehabilitate drug-addicted children.
Poverty pushes families out of villages, and many children also flee abusive parents and difficult circumstances at home, landing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and ending up in a spiral of drugs and crime on the city's streets.
Manoj Tirki, 17, ran away from his hometown in Ranchi when he was eight years old to escape his abusive father and landed in the city. He was forced to beg at CST till he was rehabilitated by SUPPORT, and is now studying in Class 10 in a Santacruz civic school.
Retaining such children in school is another uphill task as many of them move from one place to another, and often drop out or run away.
"They are so caught up with drugs that they don't want to go to school even when we rehabilitate them,” Irani said.
Mukesh Chaudhary, 14, came to the city with his brother and made a living on the streets of Kandivli selling groundnuts. He took to sniffing glue and other 'solutions' and soon became an addict. Though he was rehabilitated and put in school, he ran away soon after.
"I didn't want to study because I was earning money with which I bought drugs, and I couldn't do without it. I also had the freedom to do what I wanted,” said Chaudhary, who was re-enrolled in a school after he was spotted by volunteers at Kurla station.