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No country for railways’-platform children in a pandemic

Aadhaar-cards and identity cards should be made a priority for street children including those in contact with railway stations

By Charkha Feature
New Update
No country for railways’-platform children in a pandemic

Mamuni Das | New Delhi | As Covid-19 raged and forced a shutdown on Indian Railways in March 2020, tens of thousands of children dependent on a railway platform – directly or indirectly -- for their livelihood suddenly had nowhere to go. Many such children spilled over to temples and gurudwaras in search of food, begging for alms, others tried their luck at streetlights, though often chided by police from time to time. Some others took shelter in Rain Baseras (night shelters), and few left with no choice returned to homes, which some of them had left after facing abuses, violence in the hands of elder relatives, and sometimes their own parents. Not having an Aadhar Card, an identity card, or a Jan-Dhan account meant many of them couldn’t avail the basic ration and paltry welfare dole-outs which were being distributed by the government and state governments.

“Corona turned our lives into hell”

“It was a very tough time. So many children just didn’t know what to do, or where to go. Some parents were suffering from illnesses. Others didn’t have homes, so they were on the lookout for food, shelter, and other basic needs,” said Rajan, a 20-year adolescent who collected empty, plastic water bottles from Old Delhi railway station. Rajan was forced to return home to a neighboring village in Delhi, which he frequented once in a month or two.

Another civil society official working in the space said that some of the kids dependent on a Delhi railway station had to take refuge in a temple vicinity or find a Gurudwara for support when their earnings dried up on railway platforms once the pandemic struck. Some others like Lokesh, another ragpicker near a railway station in Delhi, said he hung around the railway station and lived off the food distributed outside the railway station -- Indian Railways, sometimes through its catering unit Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, and at other times by NGOs, was distributing food. There were children that were not covered through these.  

Plights of children during pandemics dependent on the railway ecosystem including trains and stations have also been covered in a newsletter brought out by street-connected children. ‘Street Connected Children were anyway hand-to-mouth: the coronavirus epidemic made it worse,’ was the top story of the April-May 2020 edition of Balaknama. It narrated the story of Munna, a 13-year-old rag-picker near a railway station, and many like him who were suddenly left without food and clean clothes, even as their only earning opportunities near railway stations dried up. Another edition of Balaknama quotes Pankaj, another child ragpicker near Nizamuddin railway station, whose slippers gave away, and without footwear, his feet nearly burnt on the roads. “Life was never easy, but it turned to hell during Corona,” Pankaj was quoted saying in Balaknama July 2020 edition. It narrates many stories about how parents of children dependent on railway platforms and streets were losing jobs, forced to borrow, and pushed into debt traps. Many such families reduced the frequency of two daily meals to once-a-day eating, as shown in the case studies in the newsletter. Not having an identity card, or Aadhar card, did become a problem for many of us when the ration was being distributed, said Amar.

As Railways return to normalcy in phases, after periodic interruptions since March 2020, (from a phase of a complete halt during the first wave, and curtailed operations during the Delta wave to slowly opening certain stations and running trains keeping with the spread and intensity of the pandemic and local lockdown rules, to close to normal operations since late 2021), many children, if not all are returning to railway platform ecosystem to seek means of livelihood.

Children rescued from railways dropped during the pandemic before seeing a rise again

After witnessing a dramatic drop in children rescued from railway platforms during the pandemic period, railway authorities and NGOs working in the space are seeing a steady and clear uptick in the numbers, even though trends vary from one station to the other.

The number of children rescued from stations in 2020 by the Railway Police Force (RPF) dropped to a quarter of the number rescued the year before. The RPF rescued 5193 children in 2020, substantially low compared to 16,294 in 2019, 17,479 in 2018, and 13,779 in 2017. This number has climbed back to 11,900 in 2021. In March 2022 alone, 1420 children were rescued, and in January-March 2022, the number of rescued children who needed care and protection was 3621.

“Till three months after the Delta wave, there was a drastic drop in children rescued on platforms. Later, as train operations normalized, children started trickling in. This trend also varies from one station to the other. Some stations in North India and Eastern part of the country started seeing children coming back to railway platforms in great numbers, almost at the pre-pandemic levels,” said a not-for-profit stakeholder who helps rescue children from the platforms.

The overall trend was echoed by Railway Children India (RCI), which works with street children and communities around stations, including running initiatives like funding the operation of toll-free, helpline booths for children. “The number of children being rescued is nowhere near to the pre-lockdown era (as of July 2021). From 500 children every month in pre-lockdown to not more than 100 or maximum of 120 a month (in July 2021) to 250 a month in December 2021,” Navin Sellaraju, CEO, RCI, said, based on the experience at about 10 stations of Indian Railways. Another NGO working in the space – in Central India – echoed that it saw a much lesser number of children being rescued since Covid struck.

The trend of a drop in the number of children surprises Sellaraju a bit, who knows that the root causes that were forcing children onto platforms or getting trafficked have not changed? “Rather, COVID-19 made the circumstances of those children more difficult. Most of the children that RCI rescued were from unemployed families, small farmers, and vegetable vendors. And many of these children are still facing these challenges,” Sellaraju said.

Sellaraju reckons stringent screening at entry-exit points at large railway stations, higher restrictions, and a drop in running unreserved coaches (the railway only restarted operating these in 2022), which are easy to access by children may have led to an overall drop in numbers of children found on platforms in the concerned time-periods. Other stakeholders feel many children have changed their mode of transport from trains to buses, and so have traffickers who lure children into different cities. Also, traffickers engage in newer methods nowadays.

A stakeholder from Salaam Balak Trust, a charity that works with street children including children in contact with railways explained, “Such children can be broadly grouped into those who lived around stations and came to stations for some time to earn their living; those who were lost while traveling in trains and those who used trains to escape difficult family situations including poverty. With trains and stations closed for a good part of the year (2021), naturally, there were no new arrivals. However, those who stayed with families near stations stayed with their families; and the rescued kids who were there in our shelters stayed put in the shelters.”

But almost all stakeholders agree that the pandemic-induced conditions have made children more vulnerable to adversities including trafficking. In fact, even according to official numbers by the Railway Police Force, children rescued from traffickers in railway stations saw an increase in 2021. About 492 children were rescued from trafficking in 2021, up from 181 in 2020, 361 in 2019, and 367 in 2018.

The pandemic led to the death of parents, illnesses, and job losses, pushing families to poverty, and prompting an increase in child labor, said an International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF report of 2021, estimating that in early 2020, 160 million children (one in ten children globally) were involved in child labor. Stakeholders are in consensus about making all such children in contact with railways and streets count by giving them identity cards. "Identity cards including Aadhar for these children should be done on priority so that those most in need of food, shelter, and other essentials do not fall through the gap like what happened during the pandemic," said one of the stakeholders. 

(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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