India's runaway boys

Hundreds of children live in a cycle of drugs, crime and deprivation in a railway station in Kolkata

Six years ago, Sheikh Alamgir ran away from home. He was seven years old. The Sealdah railway station in Kolkata has been his home ever since. He is not alone. More than 500 children live within the precincts of the city’s second-largest railway terminus, surviving through begging, petty theft or hawking goods on the platforms. Most of what money they earn is spent on drugs (heroin or cocaine usually) or else on tubes of Dendrite, an industrial adhesive that is a particular favourite with the children at Sealdah. (It is estimated that between 100,000 and 125,000 children live on the streets and railway stations of India’s major cities, and that more than half of them have some form of drug addiction.)

Alamgir’s body clock is synchronised with the rail timetable. Most of the trains that come into the station are short-distance suburban commuter services. But his preferred quarry is the long-distance trains that terminate here, and which can be scavenged for leftover food and empty water bottles once the carriages have emptied.

For Alamgir and his friends, the working day begins around 10.30 am, which is when the Rajdhani Express arrives in Sealdah from Delhi. Until then, the children are largely invisible, sleeping on top of cornices, under staircases and in other neglected corners of the station.

If the day’s pickings have been good, there will be an impromptu feast. Any additional money made from selling the empty water bottles or picking a few pockets is used to buy drugs and glue.

The first time we met Alamgir, he was hunched over a drawing book at a cramped drop-in centre run by the Mukti Rehabilitation Trust, not far from the station. The Rajdhani had been delayed that day, so he and his friends had been late finishing “work”. While Alamgir drew, other boys played carrom or ludo. He looked younger than anybody else in the room, but he was highly assertive and burned with a fierce sense of entitlement. When someone else got an extra biscuit, he was quick to demand one for himself, and he thought nothing of upsetting the carrom board if he sensed he was losing. On another occasion, he ganged up with an older boy, Abhijit, to loot the biscuits left over from the day’s tiffin.

Violence arrives suddenly and frequently here, and most of the boys were nursing an injury of some sort. Nonetheless, in the midst of it all, a kind of solidarity endures. The night before we met him, Alamgir had stayed up to attend to Abhijit, who had been bitten by a dog. And whenever a boy is in trouble, the others will rally round.

The boys take great pride in cultivating a wild and abusive machismo, partly as a protection against what they have to live with. They will have witnessed casual violence daily and will, in many cases, have suffered sexual abuse, sometimes as a kind of initiation by older boys, and sometimes at the hands of petty criminals or even the police.

More than a hundred girls live in Sealdah, too. Alamgir introduced us to a group of them, aged between ten and 17. They generally regard strangers with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, but are highly protective of the younger boys. Later, however, Alamgir told us that one of these girls had robbed him of 500 rupees when he fell asleep as they were watching a film together. Many of the girls have sex with the boys or are raped, and messy pregnancies are common. And, like the boys, most of the girls take drugs and sniff glue.

There is a thriving market in narcotics in Sealdah. Dendrite, which is widely used, is freely available over the counter in most shops. A small tube costs only seven rupees. Harder drugs are sold clandestinely throughout the station, though you need to know where to look. Unlike many boys of his age, who tend to stick to Dendrite, Alamgir smokes, sniffs and snorts whatever he can lay his hands on. He washes irregularly, believing that having a bath brings you down prematurely from your high.

To try to understand why Alamgir loses himself in drugs like this, we headed 60km north of Kolkata, to his home village of Tyantra. His parents are now estranged. Alamgir and his seven brothers and two sisters spent their childhood watching their alcoholic father regularly beat their mother in rage and frustration at his lot. Today, the father survives on casual work helping carpenters or stonemasons. His wife, who left him five years ago, works in a factory packaging prawns.

It is only when he meets his mother that Alamgir’s mask slips and he shows some emotion. She lives with his grandmother a few kilometres away, and has remarried, though Alamgir does not seem to hold this against her. Nor does he worry that his mother appears to be neglecting her youngest son, seven-year-old Abdullah.

Abdullah cried bitterly and clung to his brother as Alamgir began to prepare to leave the place he is no longer able to call home. Alamgir looked discomfited and fidgety at this outburst, and as soon as they reached the car, he and his friend Abhijit pulled out rags smeared with Dendrite and started puffing on them vigorously, as if to obliterate the temporary intrusion of unfamiliar feelings. By the time we reached

Sealdah, however, Alamgir seemed to have gained his equilibrium. It was dark already, and he and Abhijit disappeared into the night.

Nights here are dangerous. Because of his puny frame, Alamgir is roughed up more regularly than most, though his unprepossessing physique works to his advantage when the police descend upon the station and round up a number of boys, charging them with petty crimes. Most of his friends, especially the older ones, have been beaten up in police custody, though much of the physical harm suffered in Sealdah is self-inflicted. Many of the children here have the horrors of life in the station carved on their forearms, self-harm being common among the addicts.

After returning from Tyantra, Alamgir announced that he would leave Sealdah and go back to help his mother, running her fried snack stall while she went off to work at the prawn factory. The very next day, however, he was back at the carrom board at the drop-in centre, having just made a couple of hundred rupees by picking the pocket of a commuter.

In 1994, the Indian government developed a master plan for combating substance abuse. That plan focused on the establishment of treatment and rehabilitation centres, training in substance abuse for primary care doctors and other medical personnel, education programmes and collaboration with NGOs. There are more than 300 counselling centres for drug-abuse prevention across the country.

Yet the cycle of drugs, crime and deprivation in places such as Sealdah has proved stubbornly resistant to government intervention. More than drop-in centres and counselling, what children in Alamgir’s situation need is to be persuaded that another kind of life is possible. And that will be difficult: they have seen and suffered too much to believe that adults will ever be serious about delivering them from what they have come to accept as their fate.

Photographs by Arindam Mukherjee