India's railway children

Vipin (above, right), 13, and his brother Manish, 10, were found by a Sathi team. Vipin says their mother gave them 100 rupees (S$2) and told them to run away to Delhi and look for work. Members of Sathi, which assists runaway children, take boys the
Vipin (above, right), 13, and his brother Manish, 10, were found by a Sathi team. Vipin says their mother gave them 100 rupees (S$2) and told them to run away to Delhi and look for work. Members of Sathi, which assists runaway children, take boys they find on the train platforms to its office at New Delhi Railway Station.PHOTOS: AMRIT DHILLON
Vipin (above, right), 13, and his brother Manish, 10, were found by a Sathi team. Vipin says their mother gave them 100 rupees (S$2) and told them to run away to Delhi and look for work. Members of Sathi, which assists runaway children, take boys the
Vipin, 13, and his brother Manish, 10, were found by a Sathi team. Vipin says their mother gave them 100 rupees (S$2) and told them to run away to Delhi and look for work. Members of Sathi, which assists runaway children, take boys they find on the train platforms to its office (above) at New Delhi Railway Station.PHOTOS: AMRIT DHILLON

At station platforms, runaways live in danger of being abducted or sold as near-slave labour

It is just another "normal" day at New Delhi Railway Station. By noon, 11 young boys have been rescued. Runaways from stern parents, bad schools or cruel employers who, on an impulse, caught the first train they could to the Indian capital to escape their unhappy circumstances, they arrive on different trains from the poorest regions of India.

The impulse could so easily have proved tragic. These boys, ranging in age from nine to 14, could have ended up being abducted by unscrupulous middlemen who stalk railway platforms, to be handed over as near-slave labour to the owners of roadside eateries, dirty hotels or embroidery sweat shops in the city. Had that happened, they might never have seen their parents again.

Luckily for these boys, members of Sathi (an acronym for Society for Assistance to Children in Difficult Situations, which means "friend" in Hindi) were on duty at the station instead, looking for runaway children who arrive at the station every day.

"You can always tell a runaway boy a mile off. They keep their heads down, there is no adult with them, they look lost and hungry," says Ms Manju Singh, a counsellor with Sathi who was on the platform that morning.

Ms Singh found Alok, 11, who had run away because his parents slapped him for not going to school. Her colleagues found Vipin, 13, and his younger brother Manish, 10.

SENT AWAY BY MUM TO LOOK FOR WORK

My mother told us both to run away to Delhi to get work... She lost her job as a cook in a school and there was no food for us. My father died when I was small. I was going to look for work in a hotel to send money back to my mother.

VIPIN, a 13-year-old who was found with his 10-year-old brother

The brothers sit on metal chairs in the office that the railway police have given to Sathi, the first place they are taken once they have been identified as runaways. They usually get reassurance and a snack. Some of them are eating their first meal in two days.

"My mother told us both to run away to Delhi to get work," says Vipin, who keeps his arm protectively around Manish's shoulders. "She lost her job as a cook in a school and there was no food for us. My father died when I was small. I was going to look for work in a hotel to send money back to my mother."

Manish is too dazed and distressed to speak. Their clothes are dirty. Their mother gave them 100 rupees (S$2) before packing them off to Delhi. Emotion suddenly surges in Vipin and he starts crying. The Sathi team tousle his hair and reassure him, telling him they will first take him and his brother to the Sathi shelter, contact their parents and reunite them in the next few days.

Vipin looks reassured. "Are you scared of what your mother will say when you return?'' asks Ms Singh.

"No, she'll be OK," Vipin said. "She's just desperate with no job, no income and no food for us. She will be OK to have us back."

All over India, tens of thousands of young boys - girls are less likely to run away - are not so lucky.

India's railways make escape possible. Trains are the only transport for the poor because they are cheap and because the network connects more than 7,000 stations, making inroads into the remotest corners of the country such as the villages where these children live.

They jump on a passing train to a big city and start living on the platforms - the ideal place to be anonymous. Travellers are too busy to notice these boys loitering or sleeping on platforms. Some end up joining criminal gangs. Others are preyed on by drug pushers to take drugs. Home becomes a distant place.

Mr Pramod Kulkarni, Sathi founder, says the longer children stay on a platform, the less likely it is that they will go back to their families.

"The longer the child stays on the platform, the higher the risk of abuse. Addictions, petty thefts and odd jobs become part of daily survival," he says. "If left too long, they get used to this life and it's harder to re-integrate them into their former life. That's why it is essential that we find them fast."

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 73,549 children went missing in 2014. About 40 per cent are found eventually. The rest, never. If railway children are not found quickly, they can end up in the missing-and-never-found statistics.

 Mr Kulkarni, who is based in Bangalore, set up Sathi 17 years ago to rescue these runaway children and reunite them with their families. His teams scour the platforms of most of India's big railway stations. Once identified, the boys are collected in the Sathi office at the station.

At this point, they all look tense, clearly wondering if the Sathi team are well-wishers or not. In the van that takes them to a shelter in the Old Quarter of the city, they still look uncomfortable and anxious. Only when they arrive at the shelter and see that earlier runaways who are living there are cheerful and well treated do they relax.

"The vast majority of parents want their children back," says Mr Kulkarni. "They are normally stunned to find that an angry word, a slap, a threat, or fear of poor exam results provoked their son into running away."

Mr Kamlesh Pandey, programme officer with Sathi, says the decision to run away may seem excessive but points out that these children are almost all totally uneducated. "They respond instinctively and emotionally to situations. Some of their fears may seem like small fears to us, but they are big fears for them," he says.

For example, Tariq, 14, was scolded by his mother for not going to his job at a speaker repair workshop in Kerala. In anger, he caught the train to New Delhi. Another boy, also called Manish, 13, from West Bengal, has not eaten for three days since he left his village. "My parents are farmers," he says. "They have no money and no work. My uncle said he would take me to Delhi and get me a job in a hotel. But when we arrived at the station two days ago, he left me."

At the shelter, they are given food, colouring books and games to play. They can also watch TV. Then the process begins of contacting the parents in their villages and asking them to travel to New Delhi to come and take their children.

Once Sathi has contacted the police in the village where a child is from, the police visit the parents' home. Together, the police and Sathi coordinate the parents' arrival at the shelter. A reunion takes four to six days.

These are highly emotional affair, filled with tears, smiles, joy, relief. If the boys had any bravado, it usually collapses on seeing their parents; they cry like babies.

Manish's eyes well up when Ms Singh tells him that it probably will not be long before his parents come to get him.

"I just want to go home," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'India's railway children'. Print Edition | Subscribe