Mushraf, who thinks he is twelve but he is not sure, is a tiny boy with an ironic grin who sniffs six tubes of glue a day.

For the last five years he has been living in the back alleys around New Delhi’s railway station with a small gang of street children.

A gang of street children sleeping in the railway station, surrounded by their meager belongings, often made only of few blankets and sweaters. Neglected by family and society, street children never sleep alone. The gang becomes their family, their only reference, support and protection.

A gang of street children sleeping in the railway station, surrounded by their meager belongings, often made only of few blankets and sweaters. Neglected by family and society, street children never sleep alone. The gang becomes their family, their only reference, support and protection.
Mushraf proudly shows off the tattoo on the forearm. In Basmala numerology, the figure “786” stands for “in the Name of Allah,” a sign of protection. He got the tattoo two years ago as a blessing and sign of devotion, although he is not a practicing Muslim anymore.

Mushraf proudly shows off the tattoo on the forearm. In Basmala numerology, the figure “786” stands for “in the Name of Allah,” a sign of protection. He got the tattoo two years ago as a blessing and sign of devotion, although he is not a practicing Muslim anymore.
Children sleeping together in the station, wrapped in a blanket on the floor.

Children sleeping together in the station, wrapped in a blanket on the floor.
Kashi, seven, knocks on the door of a departing train at a railway station.

Kashi, seven, knocks on the door of a departing train at a railway station.

The station and surroundings are their small world, although not one of them was born on the streets. They are mostly runaways, barely in their teens; some are orphans, some have been abandoned, but most of them have fled home because of poverty, violence or abuse. There are thought to be more than 50,000 such street kids in Delhi alone and about a million in all of India, although these are only estimates.

They catch the first train to big cities, hidden in the toilet, as they see in the movies, loaded with hope and illusions, in search of a better life. But they mostly end up on the streets, living a life of addiction and marginalization at the edges of society.

Many of these children are addicted to toluene-based glue and solvents, a volatile toxic substance that intoxicates them. It costs just a few rupees and helps them overcome cold and hunger, muffling them from the tough reality they live in.

Chubi, fourteen, shares a flacon of correction fluid with a friend. The kids share everything and many begin to sniff glue to emulate their friends.

Chubi, fourteen, shares a flacon of correction fluid with a friend. The kids share everything and many begin to sniff glue to emulate their friends.

Their days are all about huffing glue and watching movies in the cheapest cinemas in town. Outside the movie theater, their life is made up of odd jobs, fights, friendship, fears, dreams and an extreme freedom.

Street children huffing glue outside “Shiela” Cinema in Old Delhi. Most of the kids are fond of Bollywood and great fans of movie stars.

Street children huffing glue outside “Shiela” Cinema in Old Delhi. Most of the kids are fond of Bollywood and great fans of movie stars.
The inside of “Imperial” cinema in Paharganj, packed with glue kids during the afternoon show. All day they are busy making money to buy tickets and glue. The movie theater becomes like a parallel world where street children find shelter from the outside.

The inside of “Imperial” cinema in Paharganj, packed with glue kids during the afternoon show. All day they are busy making money to buy tickets and glue. The movie theater becomes like a parallel world where street children find shelter from the outside.
A boy on the tracks picks recyclable waste to sell.

A boy on the tracks picks recyclable waste to sell.

Almost all of the “glue kids” work to meet the costs of their addiction. Like Mushraf, many work as ragpickers: Dragging a plastic bag on their back, they rummage in the garbage to collect recyclable aluminum and plastic bottles to sell by weight.

They never sleep by themselves; the gang becomes their family, their only reference, a small community with its own rules and hierarchies. Many die before their time due to diseases and drug abuse.

You can spot them hanging around the city, with lost and bleary eyes. They mingle with the crowd, but often no one notices them. They seem to be invisible.

Two boys sitting outside a movie theatre in the capital inhale glue by breathing in the fumes from a solvent-soaked rag.

Two boys sitting outside a movie theatre in the capital inhale glue by breathing in the fumes from a solvent-soaked rag.
Ajay, ten, posing on a motorcycle under the poster of “Imperial” Cinema in Delhi. Ajay and his younger brother are orphans who come from the state of Bihar in northern India. They have lived on the rooftop of New Delhi Railway Station for about four years.

Ajay, ten, posing on a motorcycle under the poster of “Imperial” Cinema in Delhi. Ajay and his younger brother are orphans who come from the state of Bihar in northern India. They have lived on the rooftop of New Delhi Railway Station for about four years.
Ajeet, thirteen, sleeps hidden in a shady space between the metal roof of the platform and the footbridge. Many homeless children sleep hidden in these tiny alcoves, where they feel protected from the abuses of police or exploitative adults and from unwanted stares.

Ajeet, thirteen, sleeps hidden in a shady space between the metal roof of the platform and the footbridge. Many homeless children sleep hidden in these tiny alcoves, where they feel protected from the abuses of police or exploitative adults and from unwanted stares.
A police officer spots children on the train tracks. Policemen often beat or harass children living in the station, treating them as criminals.

A police officer spots children on the train tracks. Policemen often beat or harass children living in the station, treating them as criminals.
Saddam, fifteen, takes a shower in the train’s water supply pipe. He is a smiley boy from Ajmer, a runaway who has been living on the streets for seven years. Street children in Delhi mostly come from Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the poorest and least developed Indian states.

Saddam, fifteen, takes a shower in the train’s water supply pipe. He is a smiley boy from Ajmer, a runaway who has been living on the streets for seven years. Street children in Delhi mostly come from Rajasthan, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the poorest and least developed Indian states.
Two “glue kids” fighting in Cotton Market, near Jama Masjid mosque, where many Muslim street children hang around. Fights and arguments, among each other or with peddlers, are not uncommon, mostly stemming from money, drugs, food or honor.

Two “glue kids” fighting in Cotton Market, near Jama Masjid mosque, where many Muslim street children hang around. Fights and arguments, among each other or with peddlers, are not uncommon, mostly stemming from money, drugs, food or honor.
Mukesh, nine, tears off his clothes near Jama Masjid mosque. He started huffing glue three years ago. Prolonged inhalation of solvents permanently affects a person's blood, heart, kidney and lungs; ninety-five percent of the children suffer from critical diseases which often manifest only as coughing, chest pains and headaches.

Mukesh, nine, tears off his clothes near Jama Masjid mosque. He started huffing glue three years ago. Prolonged inhalation of solvents permanently affects a person’s blood, heart, kidney and lungs; ninety-five percent of the children suffer from critical diseases which often manifest only as coughing, chest pains and headaches.
A street boy preparing aluminum in which to smoke heroin. Many start their drug use by sniffing glue; within a couple of years many switch to injecting pharmaceuticals, painkillers or heroin.

A street boy preparing aluminum in which to smoke heroin. Many start their drug use by sniffing glue; within a couple of years many switch to injecting pharmaceuticals, painkillers or heroin.
Sumeet, nine, on the rooftop of New Delhi Railway Station.

Sumeet, nine, on the rooftop of New Delhi Railway Station.

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Andrea de Franciscis, doctor by education and photographer by choice, currently lives and works in New Delhi.

Maria Tavernini is an Italian writer, freelance journalist and sailor currently working in India and Italy.