BY JUSTIN HUGGLER
The vast ticket hall at Bombay Central station is strewn with people sleeping on the marble floor. Some are snatching a rest before their train home. But among the dirtiest and most ragged are kids. They call the station concourse home.
For the millions who cram into Bombay's suburban trains every day, these railway children are just another dirty face, another hand outstretched for a coin or two. No one bothers with their stories.
Very few of the commuters talk to 11-year-old Mehun. He is dressed in a pair of ragged shorts and a sweatshirt several sizes too big for him. With good reason - he hides his possessions in its folds.
He reaches inside and proudly shows the few 10 rupee (12p) notes he has collected. He shows how the children fold them over until they are tiny enough to make it difficult for thieves to find.
Mehun came here five years ago from Gujarat. "I wanted to see how far the train would go," he says. That was Bombay. He was just one of the hundreds of runaways and orphans who arrive at the station every day.
If they are lucky, they come into contact with local groups funded by the Railway Children, the small but courageous British charity that is the focus of this year's Independent on Sunday appeal. It is a charity that saves lives.
The Railway Children was founded by David Maidment, a railways manager in Britain, nearly 10 years ago after a chance encounter on another Bombay station. Mr Maidment stopped in Bombay to visit a child he was funding through Save the Children.
He quickly got lost and wandered into Churchgate station when a six-year-old girl came up to him to beg. "She stared at me with big eyes and put out her hand. I only had big notes and waved her away. Then she took out a whip and started hitting herself."
Mr Maidment was so appalled he virtually ran away. "I was so shocked. Then I returned to try to do something, but she had disappeared. I don't know what I would have done anyway," he said. Back in Britain, he began working with street children through Amnesty and realised that very few charities worked with these runaways.
The charity he founded now works in seven countries, including the UK, Mexico Russia and Zimbabwe, and has 21 partner projects in India, helping tens of thousands of children. The Railway Children uses its connections in the railway industry to raise money and awareness of the problem.
In Bombay, it funds a key local charity, Saathi, which has become expert in catching these children early - particularly girls. Saathi's staff used to wonder why they never found girls living in the stations. They discovered a network of women working as spotters on the station, who lured the girls away to sell as servants or prostitutes.
Then there are people like Raju, 20, who wheels himself around on a makeshift wooden trolley. He came to the station as a child, playing truant from school. He quickly became a railway child, earning rupees carrying bags for the porters, until the day he slipped, and a train ran over him, severing his left arm and leg.
But now there is a looming disaster that could overwhelm these charities: Aids. Unicef said there are signs of the disease spreading rapidly in India - particularly in southern Indian states where the Railway Children is starting to work
Already, official figures show there are five million infected people in India. Railway Children recently obtained a £54,000 grant from the Elton John Aids Trust to educate children and staff on the disease and sexual health.
Peter McDermott, head of the global HIV/Aids programme for Unicef, said the charity's work was "very, very valuable". For Mehun, Raju, and countless others, the Railway Children offers hope and a future.
Jenny Agutter says: 'Support our appeal'
There are millions of children living on the streets of India, enduring poverty, hunger and illness, and at risk of exploitation. For many tens of thousands of these girls and boys, their "homes" have become train station platforms. And one British charity, the Railway Children, has taken up the challenge of transforming their lives.
I was approached by the organisation because of my connection with Lionel Jeffries's lovely film about childhood and innocence. I was happy to support their work.
Now they have more than 20 projects in Indian cities such as Bombay and Calcutta, helping abandoned children to find shelters and doctors; reuniting them with their families; and teaching them about the dangers of Aids and drug abuse. I would like to urge Independent on Sunday readers to help the Railway Children with their vital work.