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India’s Railway Children

The next day I return from the heady world of the privileged India once again to how the other half lives. Gyan, a social worker with the NGO Oasis, meets me at my hotel to escort me to their Ashadeep project for railway children – kids of all ages who live at the railway stations, often begging or picking through trash for a living, with no families or real adult supervision of any kind, vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and abuse.

We take a taxi to the huge Victoria train terminal, where it seems millions of people have just got down from the train and are coming straight at us. For 10 minutes we are salmon swimming upstream against an endless flow of humanity until we reach the platform. From Victoria we travel about 20 minutes to the Kurla station, where the Ashadeep project is located. Exiting the platform, Gyan leads the way through an entire community that has sprung up around the station. I would never have known it was even there, but here are lanes and homes and shop stalls, and people cooking and washing their clothes and their babies, everyday life happening in this railway village.

After winding through a maze I’m sure I would never find my way back out of alone, Gyan knocks at a locked door and another Ashadeep worker lets us in. The tiny room is 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 live 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.

Most are not from Mumbai, but are runaways from towns and villages as much as two or three days journey away, lured by Bollywood and dreams of making it big in Mumbai. It’s a familiar story for an American, where runaways end up in Hollywood or New York for the same reasons, also usually to be preyed upon. According to social work estimates, 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 15 minutes. They know where the children can be found who won’t be missed.

I ask Gyan why it is only boys in the program. He tells me 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, for the girls who do arrive, Gyan says they are the first to disappear. The sex trade swallows up the girls immediately. Obviously, some kind of more immediate intervention needs to occur, because once any child is plucked away from the station they are almost always lost. For the girls whom Ashadeep workers do occasionally find in the stations, they refer to another NGO, Saathi, which has a program for girls. The organizations, as well as medical doctors and teachers, all work closely together.

Ashadeep offers the children who end up at Kurla, sleeping on the platforms and ragpicking for pocket money, food and a bath, clothing, medical care, recreations such as games and movies, and learning. Half an hour into my visit the games are put away and a math lesson begins. The boys grow serious as they carefully write out the numbers and do their sums.

Me & Gyan (to my left) with the
boys of Kurla Railway Station.

Ashadeep also offers a caseworker to the children, such as Gyan. The social workers spend much of each work day doing outreach in the train stations, searching for new children and befriending them in a nonthreatening manner, telling them about Ashadeep and the program it offers. They give the children food and offer them baths, clean clothes, and the chance to regularly participate in Ashadeep care. They try to protect the children as much as possible from the dangers of the station. When a child has been coming to Ashadeep regularly and wants to leave the railway life, Ashadeep will contact the family if the boy has one, to try and work with them if possible for reunification. Because many boys fled abusive homes or were forced to leave, this is not always possible. If not, Ashadeep will help him get into a group residential home, boarding school, or rehab center. 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.

In Hindi, Ashadeep means “Lamp of Hope” – and with an estimated 100,000 homeless children in Mumbai, that’s exactly what it is, at least to these boys at the Kurla railway station.

This post was featured on Global Voices Online – see it here!

PROFILE: Mohammed Rafik

Rafik is one of the rare local Ashadeep children, a Muslim boy with family in Mumbai. Some time ago Rafik suffered an accident or injury to both his hands – exactly what is not known. An infection set in and spread. Because his family is extremely poor and lacking money for a proper operation, rather than treat the injury with adequate medical treatment and surgery, both of Rafik’s hands were amputated.

Rafik lives sometimes at the Kurla station with the other boys, and sometimes with his family, who use his disability by making him beg on the streets. He comes into Ashadeep for food, bathing, and to play games and for education. Gyan says that Rafik is extremely smart and loves to learn; he voraciously eats up anything taught to him or that he can learn.

Rafik would be a perfect candidate for boarding school, if his family can be persuaded to give the permission for him to go. Gyan seems to feel this is unlikely, however, as it will be a loss of income from his begging for the family. “I tell these boys that as long as we are standing with them, no one can raise hands against them any longer,” Gyan says. But still, many are too afraid.

Rafik struggles to write

If you want to read more about Oasis or the Ashadeep Project, please click here to go to their website.