Half a million passengers pass through Old Delhi railway station each day. Some of those hurrying out of its arched facade are children who will be sold to sweatshops or brothels by their adult companions. As the trains roll in – about 250 of them a day – and people fill the concourse, Ajish has just minutes to spot trafficked children before they leave the station and melt into the throng outside. Amazingly, this small window of opportunity is all he and his team at the Childline India Foundation need to rescue 90-100 children from the clutches of traffickers each month. Today, Ajish has his sights set on the Kalka Mail from Calcutta, which glides into platform 11. A passenger has called Childline from the train to say that four boys in his compartment look out of place and unhappy. When the Childline team based at the station board the train and find the boys, they approach the “uncle” travelling with them. He pushes his way through the crowd and flees. Ajish takes the boys to the Childline office on platform one and sits them down for tea and biscuits. “Uncle [the trafficker] told my parents I am going to get a good job and free jeans,” says 10-year-old Anil Paswan, and enough money to send money home to my parents every month. They can buy food for my brothers and sisters with that money.” Ajish hears a similar story every day. The reality is that “Uncle” was planning to sell him to an employer who would make him slave 12-14 hours a day in filthy conditions at a roadside food stall, factory, or garment sweatshop. Indian railways carry 25 million passengers daily. But they are also a fulcrum for human trafficking.
Three years ago, the Childline Foundation – set up under the auspices of the Ministry for Women and Child Development – started collaborating with Indian Railways with the aim of rescuing children in transit. That meant training railway staff, who are the first to set eyes on the children and most likely to detect something amiss. “We began training the entire railway system – the porters (who board the train as it arrives), ticket collectors, catering staff, platform staff, platform vendors, sweepers. All of them are taught to be alert, to look out for tell-tale signs. That’s the only way to intercept children en route, to catch them before it’s too late,” says Dr Anjaiah Pandiri, Executive Director of the foundation. Railway personnel are trained to look out for children who appear distressed or confused; children dressed more shabbily than the adults accompanying them, or speaking a different dialect; children who give limited, repetitive, or evasive answers about where they are going; and any kind of mismatch between the children and the adults with them. Neeraj Kapoor, who runs a kiosk selling books and newspapers on platform one, has dialled up his antennae. “Once you know the signs, it’s not hard to detect trafficked children. It’s just that earlier we weren’t paying attention. Earlier, I had no idea the problem was so serious,” he says.
In 2016, a total of 8,132 cases of human trafficking were reported across India, an 18% jump from the 6,877 cases reported in 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Apart from the staff, the public had to be sensitised too. Trains and platforms were adorned with 200,000 posters advertising the Childline Helpline number. The railways added the number to labels on packaged water bottles and disposable tea cups. And announcements asking passengers to be vigilant about abducted or trafficked children are now made on the PA systems of major trains and stations. “The response has been amazing. We get hundreds of calls a day from passengers suspicious of something. Often we get calls from disgruntled members of the trafficking gang who weren’t paid their share and are calling to inform on the others,” says Heenu Singh, regional head of Childline.
Childline kiosks were set up at 83 stations deemed high-risk by their location. They are manned 24/7 by a team of a dozen staff. Night trains are used regularly by traffickers trying to avoid detection. By March, another 75 stations will have Childline kiosks on platforms. “We still have a long way to go. Out of a total of some 8,000 stations, about 1,000 are the risky ones: the major junctions for the main cities where children are taken. We know which stations are on the trafficking belt,” says Pandiri. He is pleased with the results to date. More than 48,000 children have been rescued since 2015. Howrah station in Calcutta alone rescues roughly 150 children a month. Childline estimates that about 40% of these children were going to be trafficked; the rest were runaways from troubled homes, where an alcoholic father or an uncaring stepmother had driven the child away, or children on a lark that had gone wrong. But even the latter, if seen looking confused and lost, are vulnerable to being preyed on by begging gangs and traffickers, and may never make it home.
One of Ajish’s jobs is to train railway staff on how to deal with children at the station. It requires a gentle, delicate approach that cannot be rushed. Not only do you need detective skills to get to the truth, says Ajish, but you also need the patience to wait until a child feels at ease and is ready to reveal the truth. “You have to sift through the lies the children tell. The uncle has told them that he is a good guy helping the child and the parents. Then we appear on the scene as the good guys saying the uncle is a bad guy. That’s very confusing for the child. It takes days for them to trust us enough to open up,” he says. A few days earlier, six boys who had been told they would be trained as electricians sat in the Childline office looking dazed, refusing soft drinks and biscuits, and struggling to hold back their tears. Their handler was arrested after Ajish boarded the Avadh Assam Express from Guwahati, almost 2,000km from Delhi. A porter called Ajish when he saw one of the boys crying. Ajish and his team rushed over and boarded the train while telling the Railway Protection Force to remain on the platform. Although they have been trained by Childline too, their uniforms can frighten children. Ajish recalls the difficulty he had with a trafficked girl, aged about 13, who was going to be sold either to a placement agency as a maid, or to a brothel. She lied about her name and age for three days. The trafficker had told her that if she spoke the truth to anyone, her parents would be tortured and she would be thrown into jail. “Some are tutored in advance and say the man with them is their real uncle. Others are taken aback and get confused. They tell me they have come to see the Taj Mahal, not knowing it is in another city, or say they have come to Delhi to celebrate Diwali, not knowing it’s the wrong month,” says Ajish.
From the station, the children are taken to a nearby shelter where, after getting plenty of food, seeing the safe environment, and watching other rescued children being well-treated, they begin to let down their guard. That’s when the patient approach of Ajish and his colleagues pays off. “Usually, when one child, an older child, decides to trust us and tell us the real story, that’s when the others also decide it’s safe to do so,” he says. Once at a shelter, the children are evaluated by a government child welfare committee to decide the next steps. The primary objective in most cases is to reunite the children with their families. If parents sold them to traffickers out of poverty, Childline, through local NGOs, takes the children back home but follows up after the reunion. They counsel parents on why they acted wrongly and warned them that doing so again will invite punishment. The Childline team have to be one step ahead of the traffickers, anticipating their latest tricks. For example, to avoid detection, they have started getting off at a smaller station, just before Old Delhi, and then taking a bus to their destination. “Earlier they used to travel in the general compartment where you don’t have to show your ID to the ticket collector. That’s the obvious place for us to look. But now they often buy the more expensive tickets for better compartments to escape suspicion,” says ticket collector Bhagwat Prasad Sharma. For Ajish, the impact of what they do lies in the stark contrast in the figures. Before 2015, the Railway Protection Force used to rescue about two or three children a month at the station. Now the figure is about 100. “When you rescue them, you have a feeling of saving a child’s whole life – their education, their health and family life – and of course their childhood,” he says.
Credit: Amrit Dhillon for The Guardian, 26 November 2018.