Railway children cast shadow over the new India
The young boys huddle over a fire between two tracks just beyond the platforms of New Delhi railway station, oblivious to the trains rolling past. They try to boil some water to make tea.
One, a grime-encrusted urchin wearing a filthy baseball cap at a jaunty angle, says this is their home. He ran away from home after his mother died and he could take no more beatings from his alcoholic father.
The nine-year-old says he sleeps on the platform or in a waiting room, scrounging for food, and earns some money scavenging plastic bottles for reselling. "I used to go to school but when my mother died everything was shattered," he says.
India's "railway children" have swelled to an estimated 120,000 runaways each year who live in the stations of the world's fourth-largest railway network.
They have fled poverty, violence and abuse or are simply attracted by the bright lights of big cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta. They're a reminder that despite the ranks of billionaires and a growing middle class, there is no magic wand to solve the problems of the old India.
Even though growth has slowed in the past few years, the chance to make money still attracts the railway children to the big cities. With India on course to have the world's youngest population by 2020, their plight is a signal that the country could fail to exploit this economic advantage.
The last survey of New Delhi station in 2007 by charity groups estimated 35 to 40 children were arriving each day.
"Now it is increasing," says Pramod Singh from the Salaam Baalak Trust, who combs the platforms each morning for new arrivals and tries to bring them into his group's safety net.
Navin Sellaraju, of Railway Children India, a branch of the England-based organisation, says runaways are a huge issue in a country with a fifth of the world's children. "A good number of them have run away from poverty in rural areas of the most backward states," he says.
Despite the shelter of the stations, danger is everywhere.
The minute the children arrive, they are exposed to the risk of physical abuse by older boys, sexual abuse by adults and gang rivalry. Girls are often snatched by traffickers within hours of arriving.
Social workers try to get to them first. "It is important to get to them within a day or so of arrival, otherwise it becomes difficult," Singh says. "They pick up survival skills. They are easily trapped."
Railway Children's Kiran Jyoti says it is often hard to get the children to return to their families.
"Newcomers are reluctant to talk. They can take months to disclose where they are from," she says. "If they can't be restored to the family, they eventually have to go into long-term care."
Some do not want to return to abusive homes. Others simply like the freedom and money; they can earn 250 rupees (HK$32) on a good day. On the downside, some take to sniffing intoxicants and turn to pick-pocketing and petty crime.