Poverty and the draw of the railway platform

Children who eke out a living on the tracks need better alternatives, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

rag pickers

Puneet*, an 18-year-old adolescent looks purposeful but a little restless as he moves from one trash can to the next picking up empty plastic water bottles at New Delhi Railway Station. It is a sunny morning and his plans for the day are set. He will now proceed to the raddi wali gali (the trash buyers’ lane) where he hopes to sell the plastic bottles to the recyclers. When he was younger, he begged for a living. He also worked as a chana (a chickpea-based snack) vendor, and in desperate times, stole a few mobile phones as well.

Tarun*, another 18-year-old, who collects empty bottles from another platform—one among the 16 platforms at the railway station—joins him as they make their way to the recyclers.

Puneet and Tarun are among hundreds of thousands of faceless children who work, live and sleep around railway stations across the country. They are commonly referred to as Kangle (destitute) by the cleaning staff and others around the railway platform.

Platforms and livelihoods

Railway platforms have always been a source of livelihood for many, particularly children. The work that these children do is illegal since they are underage. Many collect used plastic bottles left by passengers either on the trains, platforms or in the vicinity of major stations which they then sell to recyclers. Others beg. Then there are those who sell and vend wares while some clean railway compartments and a small number indulge in petty theft to get by.

By all accounts, the children who should be going to school are forced into labour by circumstances rather than by choice. And there are just a handful of organisations focussed on bringing about a change in the lives of these children. Many of the children do more than one of the activities mentioned earlier. Anecdotal testimonies reveal that younger children start out begging and then graduate to collecting used water bottles or vending.

For these children, the pandemic came as a big shock and veritably put a question mark on their daily bread and survival. For some like Puneet and Tarun, Covid dried-up earning options around railway platforms because the Railways stopped operations during the lockdowns. Anju* had to shift from begging in train coaches to the streets after the pandemic struck. While researching for the story, this writer found that children who vanished from railway platforms during the pandemic were forced to find alternative livelihoods by begging or hawking at temples or on the street. Others went back to their homes in the slums.

Poverty a key factor

Predictably, crippling poverty was what forced majority of the children into begging and working at railway stations. Some left home because they wished to live on their own terms and were uncomfortable with the environment in their homes. But that was not everyone’s story—many left their homes since they did not wish to burden parents who were already strapped for work and cash.

But not everyone was separated from family. Some stayed with their parents and worked at the railway stations to augment the family income. But their stories reflect how societal and government efforts do not really cover all children lead normal lives, go to school. What would also help are efforts at creating awareness, providing acceptable solutions involving the community so that no child ekes out a miserable existence.

A larger awareness programme involving families – along with steps to improve the circumstance of the families — is necessary because merely rescuing children and taking them back to their homes may not be a lasting solution. Reason: To earn additional income the parents might send their children back to the platforms once the heat is off. Or they may be pushed into the informal labour market.

Both Tarun and Puneet come from broken homes. However, there are still a sizable number of children like Puneet and Tarun who have fled from difficult situations at home, or do not have a home to return to. Some others like Preetam* who, unable to cope with studies, dropped out from school and chose to live on their own.

To bring children like them back into schools and the mainstream requires an effort that needs to be invested in. It also needs a holistic approach that involves the family, community, and the government. Children who have dropped out of school must be encouraged to pick up the pieces. They must be provided bridge classes to help them catch up. They must be provided learning programmes for young adults so that they learn to read and write, which will enable them to enrol for specially designed skilling programmes, point out stakeholders in the space.

Very clearly, the railway platform children need better alternatives, rehabilitation, and reintegration if we want fewer Taruns and Puneets out there struggling to cope.

Mamuni Das has been a journalist for over two-decades. She is a winner of the WNCB Untold Stories Award and is working on a series of articles on the lives of children who live and work around India’s vast network of railway stations.

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