En route to New Delhi Railway Station, a beggar woman pushed the bandaged bloody leg of her infant daughter into my auto rickshaw. Abject necessity transmuted into a macabre theatrical event. Elsewhere, infants tumbled in and out of traffic lanes - circus children trained in commercial acrobatics from the first moment they learn to walk. A tiny boy collects change from their temporary audience, charmed by the childrens' dexterous bravura or with eyes averted from the insistent reminder of the scale of inequity faced by so many Indian children.
The story of beggar children in India is long and complex, residents and travellers alike warn of heart-wrenching scams and elaborate techniques for extracting money from unsuspecting benefactors. However, whatever means by which street kids are forced to survive, their desolate childhoods are the reality that we’re consistently failing to address.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 100,000 to 500,000 street children in Delhi and as many as 18 million lost, abandoned homeless kids throughout India. Youth workers believe the capital’s population of dispossessed children is more likely to be around 250,000 but the disparity in these figures may also indicate shifting definitions of what technically constitutes an abandoned child in 21st century India.
Is a runaway kid an uncontrollable menace to social stability or a self-protective refugee of misery? Are the working children of beggar parents who are deprived of schooling, healthcare, the daydreams and discoveries of stable childhoods, any better off than their orphaned peers? Is a child abandoned when she or he is too frightened to go home?
Of the many children arriving daily at the New Delhi Delhi Railway Station, a substantial percentage is from the impoverished regions of Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Some are fleeing endemic poverty, parental maltreatment, alcoholism and sexual exploitation, while others are orphans of experience, natural disasters and the oppressive feeling of being a burden to their poor families. Still more seek a child-like vision of freedom by escaping village life for the glittering mirage of the big city.
An average of 250 trains a day pass through New Delhi and as many as 20 runaway children are aboard each one of them. Youth workers believe there are as many as 2,500 children living on the railway station’s platforms and surroundings, and another 3,000 in the nearby Hanuman temple.
I have arrived at the station a few minutes early. Young touts gather like moths, spinning inventive lines and practiced compliments. I try not to smile at these hustling masters of solicitude.
Instead I meet a team of teenage tour leaders, former streetkids, who sought refuge at the Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), where they have been sheltered, counselled, nurtured and educated, after years of living around the station. Now, on the doorstep of adulthood, Javed, Shekhar Sahni and Sadhna Singh have launched an enterprising new program to raise awareness about homeless “railway station children’s” lives. Together, the trio has devised a route map and script for guiding expeditions of schoolchildren, NGO workers, government officials and local and international visitors through the nether reaches of their former station home.
“This is our gathering place,” says Javed as our party - including a pair of MBA graduates and SBT British volunteer John Thompson who has mentored the guides’ enterprise - are shepherded into earshot. He begins by introducing himself.
He is an 18-year-old who came to the station eight years ago as a runaway from his village in East Bihar. “I lived here for the next seven years before joining the SBT,” he says, beaming with pride.
So how was it? We are all dying to ask, but our guides have an agenda they are determined to stick to. As we walk towards the first of their sites, they relax and their stories tumble out. “I was beaten up here,” Sadhna says, almost as an aside. I want to ask him to tell me more, but the incident is so commonplace in a homeless station child’s life, being beaten is almost an anti-climax.
Between the Posse Boys (gangs of older teens who pray on vulnerable younger kids) to police harassments, beatings, predatory adults, drugs, unhygienic and sub-human conditions, and no health support system, many chldren face many forms of everyday abuse, degradation and violence.