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India's railway children

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At many of the stations a revolving community of kids come and go. Many of these new arrivals leave the station to live on the streets, end up in red-light districts, or are found and helped by a nongovernmental aid organization (NGO). Some are arrested and end up in juvenile detention.

In Mumbai Central and Thane railway stations, the communities of children are more stable, mostly because of the greater presence of NGO representatives, who do what they can to provide food, classes, and clothing. Also, because Mumbai is the terminus for long-distance trains, there is steady work.

Barefoot and dressed in shorts and ragged T-shirts, the boys have become a necessary, though not always welcome, part of stationlife. Most, like Siraj, work as porters, loading and unloading burlap- covered bales of linens from the trains and carrying luggage for passengers.

Those too small for such jobs clean trains, sell refilled water bottles, and beg. During slow times, they hang out in video parlors to escape into a Bollywood movie. Many also inhale ink thinner from rags, the cheapest "high" available. At night, they sleep in small groups on sheets of cardboard laid out on the platforms.

Life in the station, Siraj says, is unpredictable. On his best days, he makes 200 rupees, a little more than $4. Other days he earns nothing. Occasionally, vacationing families will hire him as a temporary servant; sometimes he is paid, sometimes not.

Siraj says he misses home, where he was at least allowed to rest. "Here the police are always kicking me awake," he says.

Like runaways worldwide, some of these children have fled abusive parents, starvation, or worse. Others leave home for seemingly minor reasons. Bishu, who's 18, recounts jumping a train near his home in the northeastern city of Tripura after being shamed by a public scolding from his parents, who were angry about his relationship with a girl.

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