A child on the platform never grows up … he ages

Ramesh was found crying on Pune railway station. A broker who had promised him a good job in the city had abandoned him on the platform.

Unable to withstand the thrashings from his drunk older brother and the humiliation from the seniors in his boys’ hostel, 15-year-old Arun stole Rs. 100 and sought refuge at the platform of the Bangalore City railway station.

16-year-old Pawanraj was found at Tirupati Railway station. He never enjoyed school. When he ran away it was because his mother had beaten him up for not going to school.

Kuldeep was found on Kanpur railway station. He ran away from home because his step-father used to give him a lot of work and beat him up if he could not complete the same.

Ramesh, Arun, Pawanraj and Kuldeep and just four of the many boys who have landed up at SATHI’s shelter. There are 100s others – to be precise 14,000 – who have landed up at their shelters over the past 14 years. They all have a unique story. But the one thing they have in common is that they all ran away from home. And when SATHI found these children at some of the country’s platforms, they took them under their wings.

SATHI is an abbreviation for “Society for Assistance to Children in Difficult Situations”. This nonprofit organization works for runaway children. A research conducted by them over a decade ago revealed an interesting facet – it is a misconception that children living on platforms are abandoned, orphans, or from wrecked homes. In reality, 90% of children who flee homes have a good family background and safe homes to go back to. They run away on the spur of the moment because of temporary frictions at home. They also cannot retract their actions either because they have no money or are too frightened to go back. But placing them back at home, that too as soon as possible, is the best way to reintegrate them back into society. Especially in the Indian context where family plays an important role in child’s growth and development.

Says Pramod Kulkarni, SATHI’s Founder and Secretary, “A child on the platform never grows up, he just ages. Early intervention not only saves the child from the dangers of platform life but also makes repatriation easier as the child is more willing to go back home.” And why’s that? Because life on the platform is not easy – though it may seem that way. The longer a child lives on the platform, the more he falls prey to addictions, sexual abuse, petty thefts and odd jobs for survival. There is no place like home for a child except for extreme cases (like an alcoholic parent who beats up the child or a step-parent who doesn’t treat the child properly or an abusive atmosphere at home or a poverty-stricken family that lives on alms or on a pavement) and the organistion’s first course of action is thus always “home placement”.

But, it is not an easy task. The organisation’s staff scour the platforms across the country from morning till night. Children are rescued from the platforms and are placed within the safe confines of SATHI’s shelters. They are counselled and those who are willing to go back home are taken to their families as soon as possible. In the case of children who have not spent too much time on the platforms, this is a fairly simple task. Says Kulkarni, “We rescue 50 children daily from the platforms across the country. Some of these children get lost even as their parents search for them desperately.”

Others who are reluctant to go back home are enrolled in “home orientation camps”. These are usually kids who have spent more than six months on the platforms and have picked up vices. The objective behind organizing the camps is to reintegrate the child in the family. The children are counseled in these camps for more than six weeks. They have to be convinced that their homes are better alternatives to living like vagabonds on railway platforms. Once this awareness sets in, 90% of the children reform and agree to go home. The camps are designed to infuse confidence in the children and give them an informal education. They are also given lessons in creative arts, meditation, sports and are counseled.

SATHI also conducts camps for de-addiction and motivates children to take up vocations. The children covered in this camp are aged 16 to 21 years. Some of the techniques applied are the same as in the home orientation camp.

SATHI’s mission is to create a safe and secure environment for runaway children picked from railway platforms, in their shelters, Government Homes, Institutions and other NGO shelters, to protect the child form neglect and abuse. In order to do this, they have spread their operations across the major junctions of India. From only Raichur in their first year, they are now also present at stations in Kanpur, Mughalsarai, Gorakhpur, Allahabad, Ahamadabad, Pune, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Tirupati, Yeshwantpur, Bangalore and Hubli.

Ofcourse working on platforms has challenges of its own. While SATHI staff do wear identity cards, there have been numerous instances of the general public questioning their intentions. Especially when it is a girl who needs to be brought to the shelter and a male staff member is duty. But at the same time, they have received help from many – vendors, the police, the RPF, railways, and even members of the public.

What’s also interesting about SATHI’s model is that they do not consider their task done once a child is returned back home. They do follow-ups through a set telephone-query procedure (4 followup calls per child per year) to ensure that the arrangements agreed upon while placing the child back at home (like study material for those who wish to study) continue to be available to him/her. Says Mr. Kulkarni, “We attempt regular followups on all cases where home placement has been done and home is accessible on the phone. There is a slight increase/decrease in the number of children contacted at each time of follow up. Majority of parents give us their mobile numbers because they do not have landline connections but many keep on changing their cell numbers or are not reachable during follow-ups. To overcome this difficulty, we started collecting 3-4 numbers including the contact numbers of significant people/ institutions within their community.”  Here too SATHI intervenes and helps provide follow-up support; lest the child runs away again and the purpose of SATHI’s efforts is lost.

What’s heartening is to see the results of these efforts. Many children want to pursue education and become teachers, doctors, engineers and police officers. There were others who want to become skilled persons such as carpenters, drivers, tailors. Whatever the pursuit, 29% said that they wanted a good job. Looking after parents found a special mention by nearly one-third children.

What a niche segment Sathi caters to! Clearly a lot of thought has gone behind its mission and procedures – it has been set up by an IIM(A) graduate after all. No surprise then to find that organizations like the The Sir Ratan Tata Trust, ActionAid and Infosys, amongst others regularly support their efforts. Spend a day at their shelters or if you’re up to it at a station with their staff and you’re sure to come away thinking the same.

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