The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Places of safety, and beyond

III. The open courtyard

Between protection and punishment: the contradictions in the railway children's relationship with the spaces they live, work and play in are acted out, often theatrically, in their interactions with the Railway Protection Force and the Government Railway Police on the station premises and in the trains. The basis of this contradiction is legal. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2000 would consider most of these boys and girls to be 'children in need of care and protection' as opposed to being 'juveniles in conflict with law'. Yet the RPF mission statement repeatedly talks about criminals, anti-socials and trespassers, from whom the railway premises, property and passengers have to be protected. It becomes impossible to prevent the children from getting identified with these criminalized and punishable categories.

There are a host of other railways-related acts which outlaw many of the children's activities: begging, hawking, travelling without a ticket, substance abuse, unlawful occupation of railway premises. Hence, in the RPF's policing ' and every branch of Indian lawkeeping has its own colonial (and pre-colonial) history of paternalism and brutality ' protection and punishment become natural and indistinguishable doubles when it comes to such radically powerless trespassers.

Therefore, any model of intervention concerning the railway children must begin, and persist relentlessly, with the sensitization and involvement of the RPF. This has been initiated in West Bengal and elsewhere, and has borne some rhetorical fruit. The RPF mission statement now mentions 'best human rights practices', and asks personnel to 'remain vigilant to prevent trafficking in women and children and take appropriate action to rehabilitate destitute children found in Railway areas'.

Yet, procedurally, this focus on rehabilitation creates insurmountable problems. Rehabilitation of 'children in need of care and protection', according to the Juvenile Justice Act, would entail transporting the children to the nearest government home or to their families, from either or both of which most of these children have run away in the first place! This active break with both these forms of 'care' has been, in a sense, the most decisive feature of their lives ' their first move in taking control of their own lives.

So, 'rehabilitating' them according to the law would mean displacing them, yet again, from a space over which they have created their own forms of precarious and illegal proprietorship, and 'restoring' them to institutions ' the violent or incapacitated family, oppressive, inadequate and overcrowded observation homes ' which they have already rejected, and would, in most cases, stubbornly continue to reject. They don't want to belong to these families or homes, and it is the official duty of the RPF to make it clear to them that the station does not belong to them either. This leaves the children, therefore, with practically no 'place of safety' ' another of those grimly equivocal phrases in the JJ Act.

Creating actual 'places of safety' that wouldn't be those that the children have already rejected, but would still be part of the larger community with which the children never lose their wish or ability to connect ' this has to be the essence of any model of intervention for the railway children. And such a model must begin with the station premises and incorporate its law-keeping and bureaucratic authorities. This will, perhaps, be its most difficult challenge, but also eventually its greatest strength in terms of sustainability. And the stories of hope also begin here.

In 2002, an RPF divisional security commissioner started a school and drop-in centre at Malda Station with around 15 railway children. He used one of the rooms inside the RPF post and a roster system that involved RPF personnel as teachers. Soon, lockers were made in which the children kept their belongings when they set out for the day; the railway officers' wives donated a TV and helped with the teaching; the children started brushing their teeth and bathing; a night-shelter was set up, and breakfast began to be served. It takes little for fear and loathing to turn into trust. A medical referral system was set up, with the RPF taking the children to the municipality health centre and the district hospital. Before long, a network of local services had begun to form around the lives of these children. And a Calcutta NGO provided financial and logistical support to turn it into a sustainable form of 'non-institutional care' on the station premises that did not disrupt the basic patterns of living, working and recreation that the children had worked out for themselves.

What emerges here is a three-fold structure that invests the RPF with the primary ownership of the model, but makes room, within and around it, for the interventions of, first, one or a group of NGOs working together, and second, of a whole range of other civil society institutions, thereby moving outwards into the larger local community. Apart from local schools, clubs and colleges, the district hospital, municipality (for birth certificates, BPL and ration cards), and zilla parishad (for meals), a local bank has now come forward in Malda with a group savings, vocational training and micro-credit scheme for the children, and a group of painters has started working with the children, together with student volunteers from the area. These children had been familiar presences in the lives and travels of these students, but had not come into the ken of their conscious vision before this. Complex notions of 'participation' ' a key word in child-rights work today ' can also be worked out within such a model: child councils, self-help groups, theatre- and creativity-based learning, and various forms of counselling, including yoga and meditation (to which the children sometimes bring a delightful and healthy irreverence).

In Malda, this has led not only to a transformation in the relationship between the children and the RPF (most importantly, in their mutual perceptions), but also to a significant drop in the crime rate on the station premises. Painting, sculpting, cooking, and some startlingly beautiful poems and songs are taking shape in the classes. Rituals, games and festivals ' freely, often eccentrically improvised ' are beginning to structure their notions of lived, imagined and remembered time, their friendships, and their relations with their natural and human environments. Notions of hygiene and of sexual health; learning to respect and to care for their own bodies and those of others; to manage various forms of physical disability (polio, amputated limbs) in a world that resolutely looks away; and, more than anything else, to create quite literally out of nothing, and often from the very heart of loss, the seeds of self-esteem, dignity, trust, delight and hope, the possibility of a future that would be a little less fantastical than Shah Rukh's latest role or Aishwarya's new look (and yet retain these things too ' why not') ' these are some of the possibilities that are being glimpsed in stations like Malda, and slowly in a number of other stations too. The children's 'freedom' ' that valued, vexing idea ' is thus beginning to acquire an organic structure, an architecture, which is perhaps why the 'experiment' in Malda is called 'Muktangan', the open courtyard.

But problems remain. Dendrite addiction, though considerably reduced in Malda, constantly threatens to undo many of the efforts. Tackling it would mean hard thinking and coordination, involving detoxification experts, counsellors and the police, who will have to devise ways of getting to the small shop-owners who knowingly sell these substances to the children in the form of products that cannot be legally banned. Then there are some of the most intelligent, talented and hyperactive among the children, close to or into puberty, who quickly absorb and outgrow the resources made available to them. They then hit against the limits of their circumstances with a despairing vitality, and with entirely natural energies and ambitions, which could get channelled into aggressive or manipulative behaviour that could be damaging for the other children. Psychosocial and careers-oriented counselling, free from stereotypical notions of what 'these children' may or can do, followed by sensible placements, are what such boys and girls urgently need. The open courtyard has to learn how to let them go ' for the world will, and should, be all before them ' remembering that it is something that they have done before, although driven then by other compulsions.

Laws, conventions, policies and the state. Each has its own jargon and clamour, limits and lacunae, global visions and local interests. Yet, as one works through, with or against all this, the gravest risk is of losing an intuitive sense of the children themselves and of what they bring to us: the voice of each child as well as his terrible, baffling silences, the stories he is trying to tell or is not being allowed to tell (because we want to, or are conditioned to, hear something else), the subtlest movements of his body, of his moods, expressions and tones, his efforts and evasions, laughter, abuse and weeping, the spectres of his innocence, and ' most difficult of all ' the strange and often unbearable fruits of his knowledge. And to remember through all this the devastatingly simple and intractable fact, as one child-worker put it to us the other day, that a child is a child is a child.

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