[The Hindu] Bringing their lives back on track

Book review by Preethi Mehra
28 January, 2014 | The Hindu

Years ago I met kids from Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. They were drug addicts who eked out an existence by stealing, conning and `reserving’ seats in unreserved compartments by securing them. They did so by sitting on them when the train was in the yard and giving it up for passengers who were willing to pay a price. Some others collected empty bottles and goods left or forgotten by passengers and sold them. The money made was deposited in a `bank’ — a paan-beedi shop in Central Mumbai — which charged a monthly fee for keeping the money. There was no locker but there was trust which could be broken anytime.

Demanding life
The story of such runaway children is ridden with many complexities. It is not a uniform experience with any definitive pattern. The common thread is that those who chose to make the platform their abode are those who decided to leave home. Approximately 70,000 of them arrive on platforms in India every year. Some of them are also those lost or left behind in the human melee and thus separated from their parents.

Life on the railway platform is obviously demanding and difficult. There are many heartbreaking stories on the 64,460 km of route length that the Indian Railways covers across the length and breadth of the country. But trying to capture the light through the cracks and restore hope is what Sathi (Society for Assistance to Children in Difficult Situation), a 17-year-old organisation, has made its mission. It tries to get as many runaway children as possible back on the track they belong — their families.

“Rescuing Railway Children: Reuniting Families from India’s Railway Platforms” by Malcolm Harper and Dr. Lalitha Iyer analyses the work done by Sathi over the years. It looks dispassionately at how the organisation responded to the challenges of communicating with the children, urging them to the Sathi shelters and camps and motivating them to go back home. Even more difficult is the task of locating their parents, counselling both guardians and children and reuniting them into a safe environment. The book traces how the not-for-profit organisation, through trial and error, has evolved a process of maximum success, though of course it can never be foolproof as every runaway child’s situation is unique and needs a special strategy.

Sathi found that children run away from home for many reasons including family discord, physical abuse, poverty or neglect. However, sometimes the reason can be as trivial as romanticising freedom, besotted with making it big in the city or failing a school exam. And once they arrive at a platform, they are forced to adapt to whatever they encounter. Often they are pushed around and forced to do the bidding of older children before being accepted in a ‘gang’. They also often scavenge, sweep or beg as a source of income. “The vagaries of platform life suck them into a vortex and they succumb to addiction, disease and criminal influences. The platform becomes their home”, explains Sathi.

Finding a future
Apart from relating the experiences of success and failure that Sathi has encountered in its wake, the book delves into the research it has undertaken over the years to try and evolve the best ways to handle runaway children and find a future for them. When studies were conducted in intervals at railway stations, it became obvious that the inflow of children was much more than those who could be rescued and returned to their homes. For instance, a survey in Bangalore City railway station found that around 15 children arrived per day, but only three to four children were contacted and brought to the shelter. Sathi also found that the longer the child stays on the railway platform, the higher the chance of substance abuse and deviant behaviour developing. Hence it propagates immediate rescue of children to make the rehabilitation process easier, sustainable and less costly.

Towards this end Sathi has initiated what it calls its ‘Early Intervention’ activity, which requires involving as many people as possible including staffers, volunteers, the police, platform vendors and other NGOs to identify new arrivals at platforms. Then it takes on the task of engaging with the children as soon as possible, urging them into shelters and remedial camps, searching out their addresses and circumstances, contacting their families and reuniting them.

Early Intervention is undertaken in the last week of every month at major railway stations like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Kanpur.

The authors of the book also look at what social activists like Harsh Mander have to say. Exceedingly vocal on the subject and extremely critical of how the government has dealt with the problem of street and platform children, Mr. Mander believes that open, non-custodial homes where the children can come and go, similar to the Don Bosco institutions, could be a way out. But Sathi has a different approach to the problem, and according to the authors, its experience suggests that 80 per cent of the problem can be solved by focussing on reuniting the children with their families — a Herculean effort no doubt. For this reason Sathi works closely with the police, other child rights organisations, government shelter homes for children and the state-level Child Welfare Committees (CWCs).

In fact one of the chapters looks at CWCs from the perspective of the children themselves, outlining their experiences and problematic issues. Another chapter, by Kate Bulman on care and protection services for children in the United Kingdom, provides the international perspective and how other countries deal with such a situation. In the U.K., the focus has shifted from institutional care to foster homes.

The book is sprinkled with real life stories that make the book that much more poignant. The case studies feature both successes and failures that Sathi has encountered in its two decades experience of helping 35,000 children and herein is the strength of the book — to be able to look at processes objectively in order to evolve better practices.

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