We stood halfway up the busy stairway
leading up from Platform 5 of the New Delhi Railway Station, looking at a pile
of blankets in a nook formed between the angled asbestos roof of the platform
and the concrete walkway overhead, throbbing with the passing of a thousand
feet. ‘I used to sleep there’, Javed said, ‘I had two quilts, three
blankets and five friends.’
I was part of a group on a walk through the station and Paharganj led by Javed and Shekhar, both young men, both of whom had been ‘street children’ for several years, having run away from faraway homes to come and live and work and dodge policemen among the trains and tracks and roofs and platforms of the station. They were now with the Salam Balak Trust, which had given them and hundreds of other children like them, an opportunity to move on from that life. But they were revisiting that life now, and showing it off with a fierce pride.
The children at the railway station make their living mostly as rag- and wastepickers, pouncing on the detritus of journeys, on the discarded plastic of mineral water bottles and food packaging. Their biggest threat is the policemen (With You, For You, Always) who thrash the children every chance they get. So the kids don’t wait on the platforms for the trains to come in, they wait in the spaces between the tracks, and jump into the carriages from the other side. All of this is recounted to me with a certain glee. Come Friday and with the week’s money they buy cheap clothes from Sadar Bazaar, bathe from the conveniently inaccessible hoses in between the railway tracks, and go out to watch movies, at Sheila, Khanna and Imperial. Most are obsessed with films. Shekhar has traveled ticketless to Bombay thrice to catch premieres. He’s not alone. Many of the children have wandered all over India, intimate as they are with trains, and not being encumbered by much baggage.
"Most children run away from home because of poverty, physical abuse, sexual harassment," says Shekhar. Some have other reasons. Javed ran away from home to see Delhi’s monuments. Javed smiles sheepishly. He was fourteen then. The first monument he saw was the Red Fort, but the years since coming to Delhi were not uniformly pleasant. The life of children on the railway station is full of violence and exploitation. Javed has been stabbed in the stomach, and has lost a friend to electrocution by the wires that power the electric trains. Many of the children sniff correction fluid for a high. "But even after being stabbed, I came back to the station. Do you know why children keep coming back to this place and this life despite all the hardship here?"
Long pause, as he looks at us.
"Freedom," he says.
Salam Balak Trust has begun fascinating weekend walks through everyday life in New Delhi Railway Station and Paharganj. Contact Shekhar (9873130383) or Javed (9810975284), or mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
This article originally appeared in Outlook Delhi City Limits, May 15 2006.