It was the social awareness program, a four credit course, towards the end of the first year that gave me an opportunity to work with this NGO serving the underprivileged in the streets of British Calcutta. On my first day, I had expected that unlike the slums in trans-yamuna delhi and Bombay’s Dharavi, the little kids here won't be able to communicate in Hindi. But, to my surprise, they were not only fluent and in Hindi but at times they would speak even Oriya.
I was joined by a classmate who was pretty curious about Calcutta’s city of joy - never say die connotation. We were guided by a volunteer to the Sealdah railway station, as we crossed the AJC Bose road and got inside through the parking area we were surrounded by kids of all ages between 4 and 15 and our guide just told “ek tay dupurer khawa korto eso”.
After some time we stood at a roadside eatery, which served a meal for Rs.6. Soon, there was a huge rush of kids who just stormed the eatery, there were many who just managed to hold a plate and stand. Actually ‘Dupurer khawa’ meant Lunch in Bangla.
After a while, I noticed that there were some who kept eating like they had not eaten in days. But, that was not the case. The eatery owner told me that they were on drugs. Nobody would believe that these 7 to 8 year old kids would be on drugs but then he asked one of the kids to show what he was carrying in his pocket. The kid didn't mind. He smiled and took out a half squeezed tube that read ‘dendrite’.
My colleague took out her smartphone and found that It was an adhesive used by the shoemakers for gluing shoes and leather products and by the carpenters for joining wooden material. I stood in shock. It was a sedative. Addiction could lead to death. The Glue contains toluene, a sweet smelling and intoxicating hydrocarbon. It is fatal for human body. It makes the membrane of the blood cells dissolve and causes hallucination, kidney, liver failure, paralysis and even death.
Few other substances raise one’s appetite as much after consumption as this one does.
Putting the pieces together, I realized what these children actually do when huddled in groups, taking turns at blowing into empty polythene bags at various spots near the crowded railway station. They take this dendrite inside a polythene bag and the pungent smell coming out is sniffed from within the bag. They had become addicts.
These kids, 60 odd in number, stay at the Sealdah station. They steal. Sometimes on their own, sometimes on the tip of their bosses - who could be anyone - people posing as security personnel, passengers etc.. Sealdah is always crowded so there is never a dearth of opportunities, but when the khakiwalas are in a bad mood, the kids are the first ones to face the wrath.
On days they are not lucky, they eat whatever they find.....and wherever they find it.
Most of the children are wither orphans or were abandoned. They would have a small bag containing some of their belongings which they would hide at one of their places ranging from beneath the plastic trash drum near the juice shop at the platform to the empty space behind the public water cooler.
That was my first night after the PDP sessions (the rigorous personality development program for freshers that every B-School has). I could hardly sleep.
The next day we went to this ‘day care’ home near the Camac street, a recreational centre run by the NGO for these kids. Their volunteers would go to the platform and would ask the children to come here, play ludo, carrom, and eat hygienic dal and rice. There were these polite men and women and at times volunteers like us who would teach them to read and write. We spent an awesome day in this dangerous yet innocent world and made many cute little friends.
As it turned dark they started leaving for their permanent abode, the railway platform.
Our third day was at a de-addiction centre called ‘Anandolay’ situated in the suburban Narendarpur near Gadia where they treat the addicts. It was a small facility which could house 8-10 patients at a time.
The assignment awarded to us was to find the relapse rate for various age groups. As the two of us sat together with those dust ridden registers containing records of the last 8 years, i would cite a name from one register where the kid came first and she would find the same name in second and then the third register. The first name appeared when he was 5, brought by someone from the NGO to this place and de-addicted (vide a physically straining process which would leave him physically half as alive as he was), and then he relapsed in the second register when he was 7 and then the third at 10.
After turning that last page of the oldest register we found out that in 30% of the cases there was no relapse but this reprieve was short-lived as the warden of the centre told us that in most of the cases if somebody has not relapsed he has either died or disappeared.
Further research told us this 30% remains the same in ‘Purani Dilli’ and ‘Bombay Central’.
India may go through economic booms or depressions, the GDP may rise or fall, cities may develop or decay but the life of the “railway platform’s own child” remains the same.
- Mohammad Haider Talat
The author is a Leftist, Civil Engineer and the Vice-President of the student council 'IMF' at IIFT.