We all remember the young and bewildered Jamal Malik from the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, who was forced to run away from his home in the face of danger during social riots and settled at a railway station. The troubles that he faces while growing up at the station and even after that have been portrayed beautifully in the movie, following which the child rights issues have been illustrated in an illuminating manner. A lot of children face a similar fate like Jamal when they arrive at railway stations away from their home. This article talks about such children in India who for some reason have left their homes and end up living at the railway platforms. These children are loosely termed as “runaway children” and usually end up at the thousands of railway stations dotted across the country.
According to the latest estimates, around eleven lakh children in India fall under the category of street children ( a much larger group than the runaway children). To add to the number, about 70,000 to 1,20,000 children are estimated to add every year to the existing number of children living on the railway platforms spread across more than 50 primary railway stations of the country. While these figures relate to the last official census of 2011, the latest country report submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child refrained from enumerating the number of such kids by citing dearth of reliable data. Lost from the radar, these kids fall prey to chronic illnesses, threat of life/limb, and social ailments like substance abuse and harassment.
But why would a child willingly leave behind a presumably protective space that a home provides, for the woes of life-threatening situations at a railway station? This is because the atmosphere at their home isn’t exactly ‘protective’. Children flee or are driven away from their homes for a wide array of reasons including violence, abuse, destitution or disregard. Many even fantasize about some kind of employment in urban areas and a more promising future than their current situation. Even though some of them plan to get back to their families with cash or food, they end up lost in the chaotic web that the railroad system is. Lacking a permanent roof over their heads and with no adult supervision, these kids become an easy target for anti-social elements like human traffickers and sexual abusers.
Vicissitudes of street life mean that there is no permanence of shelter and homelessness in itself becomes a problem for these children. With no source of earning money to fill their stomachs, some of them scavenge the gruesome dustbins on the platforms. Others resort to begging or stealing. Both these scenarios, over the years, inevitably link them to more sophisticated forms of organised begging and stealing.
With no parental supervision, these children become easy victims to both physical and sexual abuse. The railway stations have been extensively used by traffickers to trap vulnerable children. These children, once caught, are trafficked to far off places where they are either made to work in hazardous factories under inhospitable conditions or if they are girls, trafficked for sexual exploitation. According to Saathi, an NGO dedicated towards the rescue of children living at various railway stations, a girl child is a really easy prey for traffickers and they are generally picked up within hours of them reaching the railway stations and so it is really difficult to rescue them even if the volunteers of the NGO are constantly on the watch for these vulnerable girls. The data of railway child helpline number of Thiruvananthapuram station (Kerala), from a single station, states that at least 92 phone calls were received from children regarding sexual abuse in 2016- 17 which have only increased with the passage of time, there being 104 such calls in the year 2017-18. Such data showcases the gravity of the situation, especially considering that these numbers are sourced from only one of the many railway stations spread across India.
While the whole country might have made memes on the topic and laughed out loud, the news of an 8-9 years old boy named Kamlesh from Bhopal admitting to taking drugs and “solution” many a times within a day for his survival needs, is no laughing matter. Such news wakes us up to the grim reality of substance abuse among the youth of India, especially among street children. In a survey conducted at the Jaipur railway station back in 2012, out of the 120 odd children living at the station, more than half of them were found to be addicted to whiteners, cough syrups, and other medicines to get a high. The problem only seems to have exacerbated since then as a report from 2015 discloses that about 40-80% of the children living on the streets have indulged in or continue to indulge in substance abuse. While the drug problem among the youth, and specifically street children, is a well-known problem, no concrete and effective steps have been taken by the government to curtail it.
These runaway children are casualties of systematic poverty and experience infringement of their social and economic rights just as frequently as infringement of their civil and political rights. The Indian government, by virtue of being a part of the United Nations Convention on Child rights (CRC), is mandated to provide a healthy environment for the survival and development of every child in the country under Articles 6 of the Convention. Not only does the Convention requires the State to protect all children from all forms of violence (Article 19); sexual exploitation ( Article 34); abduction; sale and trafficking (Article 35); and drug abuse (Article 33), there is also a positive responsibility put on the states to actively promote the rights of children and ensure that every child has access to an adequate standard of living (Article 27); highest attainable standard of health (Article 24); and education (Article 28). Apart from the CRC, the India Constitution also guarantees the children the right to live with dignity under Article 21; right to education under Article 21-A; and also the right to be protected from being abused and forced by economic necessity to enter occupation unsuited to their age or strength under Article 39(e). Further, the Supreme Court has recognised the rights of the unfortunate sections of the society living on the streets in the Olga Tellis case. Despite all the positive obligations put on the state under the CRC and the Constitution for the protection of the rights of the street children, it is a dismal state of affairs that no single government programme directed towards the rehabilitation or alleviation of railway children is effective as of this day. The government has neglected its duties towards the street and railway children for decades now. There is a real need for the governments to acknowledge the woes of the children living on railway platforms and improve the conditions of their living by re-habilitating them. Many NGOs like the Railway Children and Saathi have been working hard with this objective in mind and have been quiet successful in giving these children a new and better life. It is time that guidance from the UNCRC is sought to formulate government programmes and due weightage is given to the strict implementation of such programmes and schemes.