LUCKNOW, India — A month ago, Madan Bahadur, 13, and two friends ran away from their impoverished village in Nepal, near the border with India, and rode a train to Lucknow, the historic capital of India’s northeastern Uttar Pradesh state.
“I thought Lucknow would be nice and I would find good work,” Madan explained.
Had the trio arrived in the city’s bustling Charbagh Railway Station five years ago, they would probably have fallen prey to gangs and been made to sell water and collect empty bottles in exchange for food and protection. They might have sniffed glue to take the edge off their hunger and perhaps turned to more serious crime and harder drugs.
But the fate of unaccompanied children arriving at Charbagh Station has changed radically because of the work of Railway Children, a Britain-based charity that seeks to prevent runaways and other vulnerable youngsters from being exploited and abused on the streets.
In Lucknow, the nonprofit organization Ehsaas, funded and supported by Railway Children, collaborated with rail officials, police, vendors and porters to establish a system to identify and help children turning up alone at the station.
Hours after Madan and his friends arrived, an outreach worker took them to an Ehsaas center for food and a safe place to sleep. Trained counselors interviewed the boys, urged them to consider their future and began the process of tracing their families in Nepal.
After multiple rounds of counseling over a few weeks, the boys decided to return home, and last weekend their parents came to collect them. “I didn’t know whether he had gone to India or was no longer in this world,” Madan’s visibly emotional mother, Ashmita, said, after her reunion with her son.
Railway Children is now working with partners and the Indian government to replicate the initiative at Charbagh — officially dubbed India’s first child-friendly station — across the country.
The charity was founded in 1995 by David Maidment, then British Rail’s director of railway safety. Haunted by the memory of a 7-year-old girl flagellating herself outside Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus, he researched the plight of street children. While many charities offered services for street kids, few focused on strategic intervention with runaways early in their journey. Railway Children was born.
“All organizations were trying to reintegrate children who had spent a long time out on the streets,” says Terina Keene, the charity’s CEO. “There was no real focus of their time and effort on making an early intervention with a child as soon as they came to the streets.”
Today, the charity works in India, East Africa and Britain, helping about 50,000 children a year on a budget of $4.4. million. It focuses much of its work on transit points, finding recent runaways, trying to reunite them with their families or providing alternative care when reunification is not appropriate, such as when children are at risk of abuse at home.
In India, the charity’s work is centered on train stations, given Indian Railways’ importance as the national mass transit system and because many of those arriving in big cities never get past the train stations.
Railway Children estimates that about 112,000 children live in 60 major train stations in India, surviving through small jobs, often organized by the informal gangs run by young men who themselves grew up on the streets.
In most stations, authorities tend to see the youngsters as a “nuisance,” to be ignored, except when VIPs pass through and the children are briefly shooed away. But at Charbagh, officials, police and vendors have been trained to see children as vulnerable and deserving of care, while the gangs have been largely removed from the station.
Since January 2010, police at Charbagh have turned over about 1,200 unaccompanied children to Ehsaas and several other child-focused local charities. Counselors help the children think about their long-term future. It is a time-consuming process, as many are initially reluctant to tell the truth about themselves.
Sanoj Kumar, 22, an Ehsaas outreach worker, grew up at Charbagh Station after his parents died and has seen at first hand the toll that drugs and violence can take on children living on the streets. On Saturday morning, he spotted a likely runaway at the station. Wearing a dirty, cream-colored shirt, track pants and cheap rubber slippers, Mukesh Shah, 12, had no possessions beyond a ticket to New Delhi for that night.
The child said his mother was sending him to the Indian capital to join his older brother, who was supposedly going to be at the station to meet him. But he had no phone numbers and further questions were met with stony silence.
Eventually, Kumar persuaded the boy to visit the Ehsaas drop-in center, promising him he could leave whenever he wanted. Once there, the child suggested to a counselor that he had parted ways with a neighbor who had been taking him to the western state of Gujarat for work, but later insisted that his mother had sent him to Delhi to stay with his brother.
By evening, the truth about Mukesh was still elusive, but the boy had canceled his ticket and opted to stay at the center. Grinning for the first time that day, he said: “I have decided to remain here for now. I can always go and meet my brother sometime later.”