The plight of children at railway stations

The Railways were introduced in India by the British in 1953. It is the fourth-largest rail- network in the world, the Lifeline of the Nation. The other side of the coin exposes a dangerous form of living. More than 400 thousand children ranging from the age of 0-18 years writhe their lives away amidst the filth. These cement paved platforms are their only means of survival. It provides them with more opportunities to earn money as compared to the streets, they pick rags, shine shoes, beg for food, sell items, clean, lift loads and sleep in confines of the station.

These are poor, exploited or abandoned children who have to fend for themselves and earn their daily bread. They include runaway children, orphans, lost children, ones from broken homes and dysfunctional families, and kidnapped children, children who migrate from rural areas to earn a living and children whose parents have suffered the same fate. These children experience a spectrum of challenges that often go unnoticed and unaddressed. Their presence is normalized and fail to notice that they are unaccompanied minors who are in need of guidance.

Every five minutes, one child comes to the station, i.e., 12 children in an hour and 288 children in one single day, which is indeed a huge number. Most of them do not have families and some of them are born and brought up in the station under unfavourable conditions of poverty. If a child is found to have a family, they are tracked down and sent back to their homes. Sometimes children are sent to shelters for a temporary period but due to lack of legal identification, they are not taken in by most organizations. Most of them have no knowledge of their origin, the absence of a birth certificate is a barrier to them not being rescued. Uncountable attempts were made by the governments since several decades but the implementation of the welfare programs paralyze at the bureaucracy.

These children are extremely vulnerable to abuse. They are the victims of exploitation, an unending vicious cycle. They are physically, emotionally, socially and economically deprived from being able to lead a well-functioning life. Although they earn a fair amount through begging, selling and performing, the money is snatched away from them by the mafia, corrupt higher officials, porters and older children. They are forced to spend all of their money on alternate drugs the same day.

Substance abuse is a recurring activity and it often leads to drug addiction. Most of the parents include 14-year-old children themselves, who use liquor and tobacco to silence their crying babies. The children get addicted to these drugs by the age of 3 and the toxic environment makes it difficult to break this cycle of abuse. As they grow older, they use commonly found objects like tyres, old clothes, plastic, cough syrup and tablets. Their drug addiction makes them violent, difficult to handle and risky to work with, which is why many organisations do not work with them. They also seek drugs and liquor to achieve a sense of relief from their tragic life.

As they are born with nothing to call their own, they have to work extremely hard to earn a day’s wage. According to Indian Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, Article 21-A The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act states to provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years as a Fundamental Right. This is illegal as it can be categorised under child labour. Formal education requires identity proof and it is not a viable option as it would deprive them of their daily wage.

Sexual abuse is prevalent among young boys as well. Young girls who are barely teenagers become mothers; the grave issue of adolescent pregnancy is a tragedy. As they are unable to provide for the babies, they start using alternative drugs which makes them aggressive and irritable.

They are trafficked and sold for money. They are neglected and suffer from low self-esteem, alienation and helplessness. They are victims of exploitation, forced to take on roles of an adult at a small age which make them impulsive and angry. They live under predominant conditions of fear and anxiety, experience post-traumatic stress and depression. There is a significant relationship between poverty and abuse.

Many children die at an early age due to accidents and an unhealthy lifestyle. Their lifespan is way below an average individual's life and we can only change this by taking action to help them. Most of these children have adapted to life at the station and cannot imagine a better life for themselves. They have accepted their way of life and do not dream for better. To cut their wings off before they could fly is what we as a community have been doing as we continue to deny their human rights.

There are only a handful of people who have come forth to help these children. Sanoj NT is a Change Maker who set out on a journey to transform the lives of those children who took up begging at railway stations. In an interview with DYD Cafe, he told the story of ‘Child in Rail’, an Informal Mobile learning center for these children. He