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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

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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