Ravi was seven when he ran away from home, taking a train from north India to the fabled metropolis of Mumbai.
More than 25 years later he is still at the platform, his life far from what he had in mind when he arrived: dealing with the dead as a way to make a living.
Removing bodies from the city’s creaking rail network, his is a gruesome task but he is desperate enough to do it.
Most are killed trying to cross the tracks — 6,000 a year die this way in Mumbai, according to one government study. A few commit suicide or fall onto the rails, others are hit by trackside poles as they hang out of overloaded trains.
The bodies can be so badly mutilated that it helps to get high first, explained Ravi.
“We sniff before we pick up the bodies, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it,” said the slight 35-year-old, who inhaled on a tatty cloth doused in addictive cleaning fluid even while he talked to AFP.
Sitting in an empty train coach within the grand neo-Gothic CST station, Ravi said he sniffed through three small bottles of the fluid every day, each costing three US cents and meant for cleaning office equipment.
Other platform dwellers drifted past as he spoke, also seemingly intoxicated.
Day-to-day they live off unofficial porter work, scraping by on passengers’ tips and doing odd jobs for the authorities.
But on occasions when a body or wounded person is spotted on the tracks near CST, station officials alert them to the unenviable task that can double their meager daily income.
The men explained how they move victims from the tracks by stretcher, sometimes carrying them as far as a local hospital for inspection before their final journey to the mortuary — aside from those still alive.
“I used to get scared but now it’s a kind of habit,” Ravi said.
In return, these “stretcher coolies” each get around 100 to 150 rupees (two to three dollars).
Such arrangements exist in various parts of the country, in “almost a symbiotic relationship” between railway authorities and platform dwellers, said Mrinalini Rao, former head of the Railway Children charity in India.
‘Massacre’ on the railway
An official report in February estimated that almost 15,000 people are killed every year as they trespass unlawfully on India’s rail tracks, which lack proper safety and fencing — a figure the government described as a “massacre.”
About 6,000 of the deaths occur on Mumbai’s suburban network alone, the report said, while the city’s railway police figures show more than 2,310 deaths on the tracks so far this year.
The statistics show that willing body movers across the city are crucial.
In return for their help, officials “turn a blind eye to youth on the railways and they get to live on the premises,” Rao said.
V.A. Malegaonkar, chief spokesman for the Central Railway zone that operates CST, said they did have untrained “nominated coolies” at long-distance stations to help the police in stretcher duties.
“Their help is enlisted to transfer victims from the spot to the ambulance,” he said, adding that it was “very rare” the coolies would carry them all the way to the hospital.
But he doubted any link between the job and permission to live there.
“We certainly do not encourage people to stay on the railway premises, but in Mumbai and India as a whole, the railway station is always seen a very safe place for the common man,” he said.
“But I wouldn’t like vagrants and other people to make the railway platform their permanent home.”
Life by the tracks
Life is not what Ravi envisaged when, like countless other runaway children with small change and big dreams, he arrived in India’s financial capital and the home of Bollywood.
Surviving on leftover scraps at the station, he was picked up by police and put into a children’s home. A year later his brother came and took him out, and he lived in other parts of Mumbai before returning to life by the tracks.
“My addictions, my friends and my habits made me come back,” he said.
Thousands of children still arrive at the city’s stations every year, although figures are hard to record. Rao estimates 10 to 20 reach Mumbai every day.
Girls are often quickly swallowed into trafficking rings or drift into a life of prostitution, which is why it is largely males seen around the tracks.
In order to help them, early intervention is key: charities tend to focus on the recent arrivals who are not yet entrenched in street life and a cycle of addiction, violence and sex abuse.
Once they reach Ravi’s age, it is harder to get help.
“Recognizing the vulnerability of children is not rocket science. They evoke sympathy and empathy and people want to reach out,” said Rao.
Less recognized are the risks facing over 18s, who remain “highly vulnerable” in their early twenties and need continued support and mentoring, as well as an education, to be successfully rehabilitated, she said.
“Is enough being done? Certainly not.”
Resting on another platform was Harish, aged 20, who said he ran away from home 14 years ago because his family beat him. He too now sleeps rough at the station and has been moving bodies for years.
“We don’t feel right living this way but now we’re used to it,” he said. “If we got some support to do better in life, we would leave.”