The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- What does it mean to be under eighteen and on the move'

On the Black Diamond Express to Asansol, three glimpses of the same child. He is about four years old ' dirty, dressed in oversize rags, crippled by polio. First, he scampers into the compartment, with a little broom and on all fours like a baby lemur, sweeps the floor briskly and thoroughly, stuffs the recyclable refuse into his baggy shirt, tied tightly round his waist so that things don't fall out. And then he begs for his wages. Second, just outside the toilet, with his broom tucked under an arm, he is deftly counting his earnings. His eyes are cold and alert, and he is entirely numerate. Third, as the train stops at Durgapur, he tumbles expertly out onto the platform, where three other boys are waiting for him. They are not yet in their teens, also dirty and in oversize rags, but not crippled. They are all carrying behind them, inside their shirts, huge numbers of empty mineral-water bottles, which make them look like hunchbacks. Each of them has a broom as well. One of them picks up the crippled boy who then rides on the older boy's shoulders, beating on the older boy's head as if it were a tom-tom. They disappear down the platform, out of the frame of the train window, giggling and chatting and skipping. It is as if the station belongs to them.

But it doesn't, and they know this well. Yet they are beginning to be called the 'railway children' nowadays ' often to the chagrin of the railway officers' wives ' by the law-keepers, the media and the few NGOs who work with them. They are a growing, rag-tag band of children, numbering many thousands, who live, move and work across the length and breadth of the country, using its massive railways network ' the trains as well as the station premises ' to conduct the daily business of their lives. No exhaustive survey has been conducted yet of their numbers, histories and living conditions. But if you travel with your eyes open, then you will begin to see them everywhere; and in spite of being so dispersed and mobile, they are seen in little groups, so that it is possible to regard them as an identifiable community of children within the vast and varied universe of the homeless in India.

Their ages range from three or four (they only need to be able to walk) to eighteen, when they stop being 'children' legally. The most visible are between seven and twelve, for as they grow older, the adult worlds of work, crime or vagrancy take them away. And they are usually boys. The girls get trafficked or go into domestic work. Sometimes there will be a girl or two among them, but they are resented by the boys, and have to battle ' fiercely or cunningly ' to survive in the margins of the group, earning much less than most of the boys.

What these children have in common is that they have all run away from their families or some form of institutionalized care or confinement (usually the hellish government homes), or else they have chosen or been forced to spend the greater part of their working day away from home. They have left their families because of extreme poverty or domestic violence, often both. The violence may be done to them, or could be between their parents. Very often, the father has run away with another woman, or simply deserted his family, leaving the mother and children to fend for themselves, forcing the boys to go out, earn and send money back home. In such cases, the trains and stations often happen to be the nearest and most accommodating source of work. Some of them have lost their families to natural, political or economic calamities ' earthquakes, cyclones, droughts, floods, giant waves, evictions, pogroms, insurgency, the shutting down of mills and factories. Many of them have been simply abandoned by their families at a very early age because of poverty, so that they have no memory of home or kin. Some are too mad or disabled to be looked after at home. And now there must also be a growing, but still invisible number of AIDS orphans, themselves possibly infected or ill, or weary with having been the carers of their dying parents.

What kind of work do the railway children do' Most of them sweep the trains, so that the little five-rupee broom of rushes has almost become their countrywide symbol. They refer to it, grinning, as their 'tikeet' or 'tik-kut', and it could be a ticket to many things ' a quick visit home, a trip to the mountains when it gets unbearably hot in the plains, to see Shah Rukh shooting on Chowpatty beach or Prosenjit in Digha. Many of them simply beg. But increasingly, they prefer to do something in exchange of the money. This is frequently some form of entertainment or performance ' playing Ram, Lakshman or the Hanuman, for which costumes, make-up, weaponry, script and choreography are created ingeniously out of collective refuse and memory. Sometimes, the begging itself is a feat of role-playing, acting out blindness, muteness and other forms of disability. Some are expert magicians, keeping the passengers entertained while their comrades pick a few pockets. A few of these gangs are run by adult criminals, who might also abuse the boys sexually, apart from taking away most of their money and keeping them addicted to a range of substances ' but more about addiction, especially to dendrite, later. Then there are the porters, followed by the collectors of bottles, foils and other recyclable trash. And symbolically at the bottom of the ladder, although they do not earn badly, are the shoe-polish boys, who, once they move on to 'higher' jobs (selling packaged food or working at the tea-stalls), will never again stoop to polishing shoes. A railway child may earn up to a hundred rupees per day, sometimes even more.

These are then, by all legal and international definitions, child labourers. But they are most often self-employed, and therefore have an unusual degree of control over their own earnings, expenses, savings, and working hours and conditions. Or, from another point of view, the coercive and abusive factors compelling their work are so systemic and pervasive that these factors remain hidden, creating an illusion of autonomy and self-regulation. (But there is a real and crucial ambivalence here, to which we will come back later.) So, although most of the children are illiterate or early drop-outs, they usually acquire a range of important skills. They are all numerate, multilingual, and with good memories. They are able to count, keep their own accounts, read the time, and function as human railway timetables and platform-and-coach-number guides for themselves and, unstintingly, for others. They have a quick, sharp, intuitive sense of what people are like, and are robustly adaptable to rapid and unpredictable changes in their far-from-child-friendly environments. This is a combination of intuition, motor skills and common sense, an agility and alertness of body and mind that moves, observes, responds, learns, improvises, articulates and endures often to an extraordinary degree. After being and working with these children for a while, educated, middle-class boys of the same age-group might begin to appear strangely inept and helpless, rendered almost useless by protection and respectability ' and this could be a disturbing, disorienting, even alienating experience for the not-so-detached observer, sometimes quite comically so. And frequently, these children are consummate story-tellers, listeners and performers ' talented, energetic singers, painters, ballad-makers and mimics, whose roving, yet collective ways of life make them unwitting cultural producers, transmitters and educators within their peer-groups.

It is important where they get to sleep at night, and how secure or insecure they feel in these spaces. The station concourse is relatively secure, because there are always lights and people there, although the territorial battles may be fierce. The platforms are risky, because they are patrolled not only by criminals looking to recruit, but also by the Railway Protection Force and the Government Railway Police. A recurring motif in the stories the children tell is the terrifying moment of being beaten awake by men in uniform. While talking about these moments, the children express something that comes very close to political outrage. If there has been a theft on the premises, then the children, even when asleep, are the automatic suspects, provoking further punishment. If they have lost their brooms at night, and go looking for them in the compartments, then too they run the risk of being taken for thieves. (The entire drama of their relationship with authority and power on the railway premises will be explored in the next article.) The children also become sexually active quite early. They often have sex with one another, or with diverse adults who share the station premises with them, including lunatics and deaf-mutes, often inside abandoned carriages in the yards. Since they earn their own money, they go to sex-workers quite frequently, the more motherly among whom treat them often with extra-professional indulgence. The sex is, of course, almost always unprotected.

At night, as they sleep entangled with one another, the traumas begin to emerge. In spite of being exhausted, they are usually disturbed sleepers. Talking in sleep, nightmares, and bed-wetting are common. It is as if, with sleep and the end of work and play, their lives change key.

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