In the last week of December, 11-year-old Debrath (name changed) left his hometown in the eastern state of Assam, boarded a train and arrived at New Delhi’s railway station.
A shy, curly-haired, school-aged child, he was forced into child labor by his father when he was 10 years old. Debrath said he used to work for about 12 hours a day cleaning utensils at a hotel in Assam.
To escape the underpaid and exhausting work, he ran away from home to an uncertain future.
Debrath left home following a tumultuous period during which his father died after a long illness and his mother struggled to take care of Debrath and his younger brother.
He arrived in the Indian capital not knowing what would await him.
He now lives in a small, dilapidated and noisy shelter home near the railway station with 30 other homeless children who spend their days mostly watching television.
“My family used to beat me up every day and send me to work for hours. I was unhappy at home,” Debrath told DW.
Making friends at the shelter home
With teary eyes and a choked voice, he took long pauses while narrating his arduous life in Assam. After spending weeks away from his family, he longs for his home and says he wants to return.
However, returning home will also separate him from his new friends in the shelter, who’ve shared similar tales of child labor, abuse and escape.
Debrath became a close friend of Shekhar (name changed), 12, since arriving at the shelter. Shekhar ran away from his home in Uttar Pradesh state years ago to escape the constant abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, who he said beat him every day.
After fleeing home, Shekhar began taking shelter in train stations. He eventually arrived at the New Delhi station three months ago, from where he was sent to the nearby shelter home.
Thousands run away every year
These are not isolated cases. Every year, thousands of children across the vast country run away from home and end up in train stations.
According to data gathered by Railway Children, an international organization working for street children, a child goes missing in India every eight minutes.
While many are trafficked as part of a nationwide trade and end up in forced labor, domestic slavery and sex work, thousands of them also board trains in the hope of escaping poverty and abuse at home but with no idea where to go to.
Some children, like Debrath and Shekhar, are rescued by non-profit organizations like Salaam Baalak Trust, which deploys a team to the railway station to offer help to lost or runaway children.
“After finding these kids on the railway platform, the first thing we do is take them to our day care unit where we give them food and clothes. Our counselors sit with them and ask them about their family and home,” Meena Kumari, a welfare officer at the trust, told DW.
“The children do not open up to us easily and it takes days or weeks for them to start sharing information. Some of them do not remember their home addresses or phone numbers. It makes tracing their families difficult,” she added.
Searching for family
After a child is placed in custody, there is still much work to be done — including a significant amount of paperwork, counseling, and presenting the child to the police as well as child welfare committees within 24 hours.
“The majority of these children have gone through some kind of physical and emotional abuse. Around 90% of them have symptoms of depression and PTSD. We try to do these counseling and therapy sessions to get them back on track,” Mohammad Tanveer, a psychiatrist at Salaam Baalak Trust, told DW.
After counseling, the organization initiates the process of contacting their families through the child welfare committee, he added.
Back at the shelter home, the NGO’s team succeeded in tracing Debrath’s mother, who lives in Assam. But when contacted, she did not want to take her son back home.
She told Debrath over the phone that she did not have the money to travel to Delhi to bring him back to Assam and asked him to continue to stay at the shelter home in the capital, along with thousands of other homeless and runaway children.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru