In March 2007 I was in Mumbai, India – a city of great juxtapositions. Home to massive, sprawling slums in which a large portion of its citizens live, Mumbai is India’s tale of two cities. One is on the streets, right up front – the beggars, the pavement dwellers, the street children who pick through litter for anything they can sell. The other India is cocooned behind all this, tucked away from it. This India is one of quiet, air conditioning, service and amenities; middle and upper class people living their lives much as those with means live their lives anywhere. Mostly, these two Indias exist separately, as if each half is unaware of the other’s existence.
And in the middle of it all is an estimated 100,000 homeless children in Mumbai alone. With the second largest rail network in the world carrying eleven million passengers each day, India’s train stations play a major role in street children’s lives. Many of those who run away take a train, often without even knowing where it is headed, and usually remain in the stations where they arrive because of access to toilet facilities and the ability to scratch out a meager existence from industry that springs up around rail travel: as luggage porters, shoe shiners, food or tea servers, rag pickers or beggars.
Kids of all ages make their homes in these stations, often begging or picking through trash for a living. Waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. As crowds of people disembark from the trains – commuters, businessmen, families, university students, mothers and babies, young trendy urbanites with their iPods – they leave the platforms and swarm to the exits. But some remain behind – the small and permanent residents, the ones for whom the railway station is their only home. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right on the platforms or outside on the pavement, yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.
With no supervision of any kind and largely unprotected by adults they are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and violence – especially within the first days and weeks of leaving home. On average, a child arriving alone at a railway station will be approached by a predator, maybe a factory representative seeking cheap child labor or a brothel owner, within twenty minutes. Employers of kids who perform jobs such as rag and bottle collecting keep the children indebted to them. These victimizers know where to find children who won’t be missed.
I set off to spend the day with some of these kids one sunny morning. Gyan, a social worker with the NGO Oasis, met me at my hotel to escort me to their Ashadeep project for railway children. Ashadeep offers these children food and a bath, clothing, medical care, recreations such as games and movies, and learning. We took a train to the Kurla station, where the center is located. Exiting the platform, Gyan led the way through a maze I was sure I would never find my way back out of alone, and knocked at the door of a locked room. Another Ashadeep worker let us in. The tiny room was filled with nine boys, ranging in age from about 9 to 16, playing games on the floor with two other male workers. These boys all lived at the Kurla railway station by night, sleeping on the platforms, sometimes mere feet from where the trains race by, or on the footpaths or under bridges.
Drug use, particularly glue sniffing, is a problem for many of these boys without a childhood who often yearn for an escape from the brutality of their lives. I asked Gyan why it is only boys in the program. He said that the majority of railway kids are in fact boys, and this seems to be attributed to two reasons. One, boys are more likely than girls to actually run away from home and leave their villages. Second, when girls do arrive they are the first to disappear. The sex trade swallows up the girls immediately; every hour four new girls and women enter prostitution – three of them against their will. And once any child is plucked away from the station, they are almost always lost.
Half an hour into my visit the games were put away and a math lesson began. The boys grew serious as they carefully wrote out the numbers and did their sums. The interesting foreigner in their midst was quickly forgotten and they concentrated on their assignment, soaking up the learning like a sponge and eager to show off their skills. I watched these eight, ten, twelve year olds who should be in school every day and thought about children who take their education for granted. It was such a simple right that it should be taken for granted as a right for all children. This was the only schooling these boys had, and it made me very fearful for their futures.
I noticed one of the boys struggling to write his math problems. His arms were missing below the elbows and he leaned over his notebook on the floor, holding a pencil in his teeth and guiding it with the stub of his left arm. Threads hung from where the sleeves had been cut off the heavily stained shirt. His brown knees were scabby below his shorts; I could see only the top of his head, short black hairs bristling from his scalp, as he bent over his work laboriously. His name was Mohammed Rashid, and he was about twelve years old. He lived at the Kurla station with the other boys part of the time, and sometimes with his family. When he was four or five, Rashid suffered some sort of injury to both his hands – exactly what Gyan either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me. Such vagueness seemed common for such children who often didn’t know their birthdays or exactly how old they were. An infection set into Rashid’s hands and spread. The desperately poor family lacked the money for a proper operation and medical treatment, so both of his arms were amputated at the elbows.
The caseworkers try to protect these boys as much as possible from the dangers of the station. “These boys lose their right to a childhood, education, and family,” Gyan said as we watched the boys play. “They even lose their humanity.”
Excerpted from Shelley Seale’s upcoming book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India.