Deep Purokayastha is working for the protection and care of India’s impoverished itinerant railway children by involving the state-run Railway Police Force in a leading, proactive role, while at the same time engaging civil society and the children themselves in this effort.
Deep is working to provide effective care and protection for India’s more than 50,000 itinerant children by designing a well coordinated system that responds to these children’s mobile lifestyle. In identifying a problem in the fact that existing government and civil society programs for these children have been uncoordinated and have failed to factor in the reality that the children do not want to give up their wandering lifestyles, Deep has found an insightful solution. He is collaborating with the Railway Police Force (RPF), turning a group of people who have in the past abused these migrant children into their primary protectors. Deep has seen that the RPF is uniquely well positioned and equipped to respond to the immediate needs of the children efficiently and on a permanent basis.
Deep is working with RPF members to transform the way they perceive their role vis-à-vis the migrant children and to equip them with the skills necessary to provide care. He is linking their efforts to existing service infrastructure such as railway hospitals and canteens. Yet Deep’s organization is involved only to facilitate and advise, allowing the RPF to take ownership of its transformation by managing the program. Deep is complementing this strategy with a broader awareness-raising campaign among the public as well as providing citizen groups concrete ways to help the children by working with the RPF. His efforts have resulted in this hitherto invisible, marginalized group being put on the radar of the state and civil society, who are collaborating to take responsibility for these vulnerable children. At the same time, Deep is connecting the children to services and support that helps them re-enter society, gradually moving from social outcasts to constructive citizens.
There are nearly 100,000 children living on railway premises across India, about two-thirds of whom spend their day travelling between stations. These children have run away from destructive home environments, situations ranging from violence to sexual abuse to deliberate neglect, and have now created alternative lives along India’s vast railway network. Moving from station to station, they are driven by one basic need: food. To procure food they may beg, scrounge for leftovers, earn the odd cent from passengers by doing jobs like sweeping the coaches or singing songs, or, quite often, lower to petty theft. For the passengers, these children are an unpleasant, unhygienic part of train travel, viewed with suspicion and shooed off with threats or a few cents. Their sheer numbers are overwhelming and most of the public chooses to ignore the situation rather than try and change it.
When migrant children disembark at a station, the Railway Police Force (RPF), as the official state presence on the platform, is best situated to look after their need for shelter, cleanliness, or medical assistance. However, in the past the members of the RPF have not seen themselves as protectors, instead too often being the principle perpetuators of abuse of the children. The children are vulnerable to every kind of abuse, in fact, because there is no official body that takes responsibility for their protection. They fall through the cracks of India’s child protection services because these are designed for stationery groups of children. When any attempt is made to “help” these children, or when they are picked up by the law for some petty crime, they are sent to state-run juvenile homes from which, inevitably, they run away and revert to their roaming, unprotected lifestyle.
Many citizen sector organizations run schools and health services along railways platforms. Their programs, however, like those of the government, are typically designed for children from slums adjoining the station and assume the children are living in one place. They are not equipped to deal with floating populations and so fail to serve the railway children.
The first part of Deep’s model is aimed at RPF police, teaching them through a set of unique training sessions to both empathize with and care for the itinerant children, emotionally and practically. The second part of his model is to involve citizen groups as both partners and monitors of the RPF, implementing its program for the migrant children, but also acting to pressure the organization to carry through on its promises. Finally, Deep is educating the children themselves on their rights and responsibilities.
Over time, Deep’s collaboration with the RPF has led to the development of a blueprint program that can be used for all Indian railways. Two large railway networks have already taken up Deep’s program, and he is currently working to get the program running on a national level. Because the RPF is the principal manager of the program, the model can be easily spread after its development, testing and refinement within one railway network. All networks of the Indian Railway work exactly in the same manner, with the same infrastructure. This will greatly facilitate the national spread that Deep sees as his objective. At these initial stages, Prajaak is playing a more proactive part in facilitating the system at each station. Gradually, Deep plans for this facilitating role to be handed over to local partner citizen sector organizations, allowing Prajaak to become a resource unit for guidance, trainings and advocacy activity.
Prajaak engages members of the RPF with an approach that combines sensitization and emotional reorientation with practical inputs. All RPF members partake in regular empathy-based trainings whose goal is to humanize the kids for them, and also bring to life the RPF’s potential role with the children. These sessions take the police back to their own childhoods, forging emotional connections between their experiences and the vulnerability of the children. They emphasize the policeman’s role as a protector using allusions to culturally powerful mythological and legendary figures. Deep has also allotted time for interaction between RPF police and the migrant children. A roster system ensures that every RPF personnel spends at least two hours a week involved in activity with the children—in the classroom, during outings etc. This interaction cements interpersonal bonds, but also the engagement of the police. Prajaak also involves officers’ wives in the program, typically as teachers. Their interest and enthusiasm serve as a strong motivating factor for their husbands.
Along with getting the RPF members’ emotional commitment to assuming responsibility for the children, Prajaak lays out the practical steps they can take, emphasizing constantly the minimal amount of cost and effort required. Underutilized spaces such as railway sheds can become classrooms and dormitories for the kids, complete with lockers to store their few possessions. The existing railway hospitals can provide medical services for the children. The RPF canteens can provide them with food at subsidized rates. Deep is working with the RPF to develop and fine-tune further systems that can make it easier for the railways to help the children. For example, they have created a system of identification cards for the children that will make them eligible to plug into shelter, food, health, and education services at any participating station. The RPF has taken the lead in negotiating with local municipal authorities to ensure that the kids can access services like the Public Distribution System (PDS) for food rations and the state-run Primary Health Care centers.
Along with aiding the children who want to continue their migrant lifestyles, Deep is also thinking about how to move the migrant children into a healthier, more stable environment. He is experimenting with self-help groups among the children, so that they can access a mobile micro-finance network. These self-help groups have already been established at three stations. Additionally, Deep is exploring ways to facilitate employment opportunities in the railway network for children approaching adulthood, such as courier services, working in the RPF canteens, etc. Deep has also been guiding the RPF to grow its capacity to play a leading role in repatriating railway children who actually want to go home. The RPF is starting to work with the police stations, the state-run juvenile homes, and civil society organizations in the villages children have left. Together, these groups can form an accurate picture of cases where it may be possible for the child to go back to his family. By encouraging and facilitating such repatriation, the RPF is also acting as a gatekeeper, ensuring that their system is not stretched beyond its limits for children who could be living elsewhere.
Currently, there is a movement in India to put pressure on public bodies, especially law enforcement, to become more people-friendly and approachable. Senior officers are concerned with making over the public image of their institutions. An important part of Prajaak’s strategy to get the RPF on board is to tap right into this social trend. Working with the media, Prajaak ensures that the RPF gets plenty of good press for its efforts. The media gains “feel-good” stories enjoyed by its readers and viewers because the RPF is transformed from a law-enforcement body traditionally seen as one the most brutal and abusive to caring protectors and champions of vulnerable children.
Deep also brings in local citizen sector organizations such as chambers of commerce, youth clubs, and college volunteer associations into this new care matrix. The role of these organizations is twofold. First, they work as partners of the RPF to design and implement assistance for the children. For example, they help with running the schools and organizing outings. They also play an important role in raising awareness in Indian society about this migrant group, its needs, and the importance of taking responsibility for group members. With the RPF, they form pressure groups on state-run services to secure the children’s access to these services. Secondly, the citizen sector organizations play an important watchdog function, restraining the RPF so that it does not abuse or overexert its authority over the children.
Part of Deep’s program also involves educating the itinerant children on their rights and responsibilities. They learn what rights they are guaranteed by the Constitution and the responsible citizen behavior that is expected of them in return. Camps are held on a regular basis in which the children learn to work in groups, are educated on democratic processes, and participate in exercises promoting trust-building, leadership activities, and resolving conflict. Children are encouraged to become active partners in the RPF program, and often attend related meetings with municipal authorities. This has the added benefit of helping the civil authorities see the children as flesh and blood, rather than an abstract entity.
Deep’s pilot project at the Malda station began in 2001. By 2003, Prajaak had achieved some important milestones. The informal RPF school for the children came to be known as the RPF-Muktangan (meaning the “RPF’s open courtyard”) and had spread to seven other junction stations in West Bengal. Crime statistics at Malda showed that crime against passengers by children in the station precincts had fallen by 35 per cent—a resounding success resulting from Prajaak’s effort to change children’s behavior by changing adult behavior towards them. The Managing Director of the Eastern Railways has issued a circular recommending that stations should adopt Deep’s model across the country. The Eastern Railways and the North East Frontier Railway have both adopted the model for the stations in their networks. The Web sites of both of these rail networks clearly state that it is part of their mandate to protect destitute children on the trains or platforms.
Deep is currently lobbying the Railway Board to get a separate budget line in the Indian Railways for the program. He is optimistic that this will be a reality in five years. In order to strengthen his case, he has launched a survey of railway children in the Eastern Railways. Designed by a premier Indian Statistical Institute, funded by UNICEF and executed under the auspices of the RPF, the survey will provide crucial quantitative and qualitative data about this population.
The success of Deep’s model has implications not only for migrant children but for other mobile populations of the country. By reorienting civil and government sectors to respond to the needs of one migrant population, Deep is enabling them to be better organized and tuned to the needs of other itinerant groups.
Born into a secure, financially stable family, Deep’s first real exposure to social sector issues came in college, when he made friends with students working with the National Services (youth volunteer groups). Through these groups, Deep attended workshops on issues like HIV/AIDS and became increasingly certain that he wanted to work with marginalized and vulnerable populations.
After earning a MBA degree and a brief stint working in the corporate sector, Deep became increasingly focused on social issues rather than business deals, despite the latter being more lucrative. He quit his job in information technology and began working as a volunteer for a citizen sector organization working on reproductive/sexual health. Two years later, in 1995, Deep founded Prajaak to work with children in troubled situations.
Among the first projects that Prajaak undertook was a study on the sexual health of children detained in state-run juvenile homes as part of a psychological rehabilitation program. It was during this time that Deep came into contact with “railway children,” who were constantly running away from these homes to return to their mobile lives. Deep came to understand that for these children the care paradigm had to be quite different from the traditional institution-based approach. Talking with these kids and spending time in the trains and stations that were part of their beat, he realized that only the RPF were in a position to take the lead responsibility for setting up and running this alternative system in a sustainable manner. When a dynamic and enterprising officer took over as Railway Chief at Malda station—one of the larger stations of the Eastern Railways—Deep was quick to leverage this window of opportunity, persuading the Officer to give Prajaak official sanction to work with the Malda RPF. This was the launching point for his current work.