In Plain Sight but Invisible

Indian street children play beside a parked hand rickshaw on a street in Kolkata. (Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP-Getty Images)

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at 10 p.m., I am waiting with a group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar, India that we are on our way to spend a week with.

From nowhere it seems, two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about seven or eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging. I am acutely aware of the mountain of belongings surrounding the five of us — the suitcases containing toys and treats for other children, the plastic bags of food and drinks for the overnight train journey at my feet.

When brought face to face with such children — an all-too-common occurrence virtually everywhere in India — it becomes almost impossible to ignore them; to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul and no matter how many times the situation occurs, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation.

Reinforcing the tactic of children begging as a successful strategy merely continues the cycle. Activists and non-governmental organization (NGO) workers will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like this, or in fact anyone in desperate need, then supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to NGOs that work with vulnerable children. It's the reason I'm in India in the first place, volunteering in an orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I'm approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It's so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. But I can't help it. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

After we board the train and find our seats, I stow my backpack under a side bench and sit down. Within moments, there is a knock on the window. I look out and the two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They're all grinning from ear to ear. "One more, auntie!" they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station. As little as it seems, I'm glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. They stay with me long after I'm gone and I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will go next.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right out on the pavement or the train stations — yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

The figures quoted by various agencies are so varied they are almost meaningless. One 1994 report by UNICEF estimated 11 million street children; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights quotes 18 million. Some NGOs put the figure as high as 100 million. Such statistics are hard to pin down because their lives are never constant and their mobility is as much as 70 percent. Many of them right on the sidewalks or in slums of extreme deprivation. Although I don't know the specific circumstances of the boys in the Rourkela station that night, uncounted numbers of children live in railway stations all over the country scratching out whatever meager existence they can, living on the constant edge of disaster. Current estimates suggest that as many as 125,000 street children live in each of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.

With the second largest rail network in the world carrying 11 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 eke out a meager existence from industry that springs up around rail travel: luggage porters, shoe shiners, food or tea servers, rag pickers, or beggars if they must.

They sleep on the platforms, sometimes mere feet from where the trains race by, or on the footpaths or under bridges. They are at high risk for malnutrition, health problems, substance abuse, and violence. Glue sniffing is the most common drug problem for many of these children without a childhood, who often yearn for an escape from the brutality of their lives.

With no supervision of any kind and largely unprotected by adults, they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, especially within the first days and weeks of leaving home. A child arriving alone at a railway station will only be approached by a predator, maybe a factory representative seeking cheap child labor or a brothel owner, within 20 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 the children who won't be missed.

I met some of these kids myself one sunny morning shortly after arriving in Mumbai. An estimated 30 unaccompanied children arrive at the city's 125 train stations every day. As thousands 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.

Gyan, a social worker with the NGO Oasis India, escorted me to their Ashadeep project at the Kurla train station. After winding through a maze I would never find my way back out of alone, Gyan knocked at a locked door and another Ashadeep worker let us in. The tiny room was filled with nine boys, ranging in age from about eight to fourteen, playing games on the floor with two other male workers while they took turns washing in the one bathroom. The boys all live in the Kurla station by night.

Ashadeep social workers spend much of each workday doing outreach in the train stations, searching for new children and befriending them in a non-threatening manner. They offer the kids food, a bath, clothing and the chance to regularly participate in Ashadeep activities such as games, movies and sports. The caseworkers try to protect them as much as possible from the dangers of the station.

"These boys lose their right to a childhood, education, and family. They even lose their humanity," Gyan said. "Then the cycle continues into the next generation."

The program also provides medical care and learning activities. 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 as they concentrated on their assignment, each of them 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 most children who take it for granted. This was the only schooling these boys had, and it made me very fearful for their futures.

Once a boy has been coming to Ashadeep regularly and wants to leave the railway life, the caseworkers will contact any family he has to try and work with them for reunification and to get the child into school. But because many of them fled abusive homes or were forced to leave, this is not always an option. Some have been so abused and are so frightened of their parents that they do not want to return home, even with an Ashadeep representative at their side.

"We tell the boys that as long as we are with them, no one can raise hands against them any longer," Gyan said. "But still, they are sometimes very afraid."

The workers try to place such children, if they are younger, into boarding schools or residential homes. For the older boys, Oasis will rent a house for several of them together and help with job training and life skills.

Before I left the Ashadeep railway center I asked Gyan why it was only boys in the program. He replied that the majority of kids living in the train stations are in fact boys, and this seems to be attributed to two reasons. First, boys are more likely than girls to actually run away from home and leave their villages. Second, for the females who do arrive, Gyan said they are the first to disappear. The sex trade swallows up the girls immediately.

When Ashadeep workers do occasionally find girls in the stations, they refer them to other NGOs such as Salaam Baalak Trust that have programs for girls. Oasis communications manager Divya Kottadiel echoed how difficult the challenge is for girls.

"Once they've been in the sex trade very long, no matter how abusive, it becomes more difficult to get them out of it. Many children on the streets continue to live on the streets, despite safer options," she said. "The thought of being confined to four walls frightens them and they prefer to live in 'freedom' out on the streets."

But for these children, the price of freedom is very high. They pay with their childhood, their innocence, their health, and sometimes their very lives.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Shelley Seale.