Cover

Lost

Sibi Arasu | Updated on December 05, 2014 Published on December 05, 2014

In India, one child goes missing every eight minutes. Yet it continues to be a low-priority issue for the State   -  C Ratheesh Kumar

The missing persons cell in Old Delhi tells of too many incomplete stories   -  VV Krishnan

A child holds up a placard during a protest rally at Jantar Mantar in the Capital   -  V Sudershan

Aleena with her child Noor at Nangloi in west Delhi   -  Sibi Arasu

A notice board for missing children at an orphanage in Bengaluru   -  K BHAGYA PRAKASH

Each year, one lakh children go missing in India — that’s one child every eight minutes. And despite the notable efforts of some, a missing child rarely comes home

Noor* speaks in a shaky, melodic rhythm like most 11-year-olds, her sentences punctuated with pauses to catch her breath. “I was playing outside in the small park near our jhuggi (slum), when Kaajal aunty came and gave us water and said she’ll buy us things,” she says. Noor, who lives in Camp No.2 in Nangloi, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in the outer reaches of west Delhi, was narrating how she was kidnapped and taken to Agra, purportedly trapped in an adoption racket. She was lucky though. She was brought back home after six days. Noor was nine then. The penultimate child among nine children, her alcoholic father had made himself scarce, leaving the older children to provide for the family. “Kaajal aunty said she’ll buy me new clothes and bags for school, so I went with her. But they put us in a van and took us all to Agra. There she introduced us — there were three other children, two boys and one girl — to some people and said we should all call them abba and ammi.”

Back home, now enrolled in Class V at the local government school, Noor is dimly aware that her future could have been very different had the child-snatcher ‘Kaajal’ not come back to the same neighbourhood in search of more victims. “She was spotted by some people in the area and caught red-handed. We got information about Noor from her, and handed her over to the police,” says Noor’s mother, Aleena*. ‘Kaajal’, however, escaped from the police station. “They said she ran away when she went to use the bathroom,” says NGO Nav Srishti’s Nazma Khan, in whose office I met Noor and her mother. Nav Srishti, a child rights’ organisation, has an active presence in the area. But after all their pleas to nab ‘Kaajal’ again fell on deaf ears, they alerted the media. “Soon after, the police called us and said Noor was in an empty field near our area, and we found her exactly where they said we would. How she got there and how the police found out before any of us, I have no idea,” says Khan, who has been tracking such cases for 16 years.

Losing count

Since 2011, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 3.27 lakh children have gone missing across the country and nearly 1.5 lakh remain untraceable. The situation is particularly grim in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and the National Capital Region. Begging, domestic labour, human and organ trafficking are a few of the sordid situations missing children find themselves in. “The reasons are many, but the underlying cause is mostly poverty. In a space where there is poverty, children and women are first to get impacted, and more often than not, suffer the most as well,” says Soha Moitra of Child Rights and You (CRY), “The issue is a silent emergency that nobody is addressing.”

Apart from NGOs like CRY and Nav Srishti, there are several State actors whose mandate includes lowering the incidence of missing children, proactive recovery and rehabilitation after rescue. Statutory bodies, such as the various commissions for protection of the Child Rights Act, Child Welfare Committees and so on, are all part of the pool. Barring a few cases, however, the changes effected by all these organisations have largely been negligible (relative to the scale of the problem). It is telling, for instance, that the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has been without a chairperson for more than two months now.

Arun Mathur, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) says, “The situation today is a sad reflection of our priorities, when it comes to this vital issue. The DCPCR tries to take action on every case that is reported but, unfortunately, the numbers are only increasing.” In Delhi, it is estimated that 18 children go missing on a daily basis. In many cases, even if the child is found and sent to a recovery home, he or she ends up languishing there instead of going back to the family. “What we do now is to put out notices and photographs of the missing children at all these homes as well as police stations across the State, and on portals like zipnet.in, so that anyone with any information can reach out to us immediately,” says Mathur. Zonal Integrated Police Network or Zipnet was created in 2004 to share information about crimes across states. The ‘missing children’ section of the site has now been outsourced to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which runs another site, trackthemissingchild.gov.in, where details of all the missing children are posted. While such sites may prove useful to tech-friendly parents searching for a missing child, a majority, especially the poor, continue to throw punches in the dark.

In recent years, however, the police and the abductors alike have leveraged technology to their advantage. Deepak Mishra, special commissioner, law and order, Delhi Police, says, “Sure, technology has made it easier for criminals to operate but, at the same time, it has made it easier for us to track them too.” Last month, Utkarsh Verma, a 13-year-old boy, was kidnapped for ransom but was later found dead in a gutter near his house in east Delhi. The police were unable to apprehend the kidnappers in time because they were calling from a mobile number that had been acquired without requisite proof of identification. Later, the police charged Vodafone, the telecom company that had provided the SIM to the kidnappers without proper verification. They have also brought the company’s negligent conduct to the attention of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

But technology can only provide the authorities with tools. Whether those tools galvanise them into action is another matter altogether. “Yes, recovery rates have become better, especially in Delhi,” admits Reena Banerjee, founder member of Nav Srishti, “but the overall situation is still bad.” Banerjee feels a child’s socio-economic class remains crucial to his or her chances of rescue. “It is unfortunate that the police are not interested because they are poor people. Children who are rich hardly ever go missing for more than 72 hours. When it is the poor, even after 72 days there are hardly any results.”

Order and chaos

“It’s not true at all that we don’t look into complaints. Only in the last week there have been two cases, one was a jeweller’s son and another that of a fruit vendor. We gave equal attention to both,” says special commissioner Mishra. “I think this is just a stereotype. I’d say it’s impossible to bring the number of missing children to zero or close to that, but we put in our best efforts to track all the complaints that are filed. More stringent punishment for the accused who are caught and convicted would go a long way in curbing the menace though.”

In May 2013, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement with regard to missing children — the greatest development so far, in terms of judicial intervention. In a case filed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the court took cognisance of the fact that 90,654 children went missing, with 34,406 of them still untraced in 2011. However, only 15,284 FIRs were registered and investigations launched. Following this, the court ordered that every complaint about a missing child should be registered by the police with the assumption that the child is a victim of kidnapping and trafficking, along with a slew of other orders aimed at tracking the children more effectively. Yet, there appears to be more action on paper than in practice at the moment.

“Laws on missing children have evolved over time. Until a few years ago, no FIR was filed. The police would simply register a complaint in their daily diaries and that was the end of the story,” says Anant Kumar Asthana, a child rights activist and lawyer. “Even though the situation is much better now, overall the Juvenile Justice Act is poorly implemented, and the reason is that children don’t figure as an area of concern in governance. A frequent complaint I hear from parents is that the police ask them: ‘why do you have so many children, if you can’t take care of them?’”

Before and after

Institutions, such as the Child Welfare Committees, set up under the Juvenile Justice (care and protection of children) Act of 2000 are required to find out why children went missing; and their reasons, if they left voluntarily. The State governments are required to establish a CWC in every district. Kamla Lekhwani, chairperson of the CWC in north Delhi, says, “We handle the cases where FIRs have been filed and the children have been traced. It’s our job to find out why he or she ran away.” In her district, the bulk of the children are from families of migrant workers. “And we have noticed that since the parents are at work through the day, children tend to run away, and many end up getting addicted to cheap drugs or gambling. It is a vicious cycle of poverty because, often, even after the children are brought back, they tend to be addicted, or try to run away again.” In Lekhwani’s district, she receives an average of 35 child-related cases a day, of which at least four are connected to missing children.

One approach to curb the rising numbers has been to try and strike at the roots, preventing a child from leaving or being taken away in the first place. “The parents and community need to be aware, and for this we conduct programmes at various schools. We have also helped create a missing children’s parents’ network, so they can be in touch and act together when required,” says Lekhwani.

Mathur of DCPCR agrees: “Bridging the information gap is important. So we have been arranging meetings where we bring the police and the parents together. Also, we’ve been trying to emphasise the importance of the first few hours after a child disappears. Both the parents as well as the police need to react quickly. Otherwise, it can be a difficult task.”

While there are efforts being made by government bodies and NGOs, they are few and far between. And almost all stakeholders agree that ‘missing children’ is a low-priority issue for politicians in power and, as a corollary, for the police establishment that works at their behest. Banerjee of Nav Srishti laments that unlike the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which has got great currency, for instance, the problem of missing children is not high on the government’s agenda, even though a staggering one lakh children disappear every year. “They keep talking about the youth, the next generation,” she says, “But why don’t they do something about the children who go missing; children who will be the next generation?”

(*Names changed on request.)




Janvi with her parents at their residence in Raghubir Nagar, west Delhi Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

“My daughter was reborn”



Rakesh Ahuja, the father of Janvi — the toddler who went missing from the lawns of India Gate in September — talks about the ordeal and the reunion

On the evening of September 28, the Ahujas, along with other families from their neighbourhood, Raghubir Nagar in west Delhi, went on an excursion to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Connaught Place and later, settled down at the India Gate lawns for a picnic. Rakesh Ahuja, 30, a part-time photographer and his wife, Sheetal, 27, took their eyes off their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Janvi “for two minutes”, when she disappeared at around 9.20pm.

Realising that their daughter was missing only a few minutes later, the entire group launched a search for the child around the lawns and informed the police, who managed to look at CCTV footage. Unfortunately, it revealed very little. Following that, the family started a search campaign both online and offline. They also reached out to the media and organised a vigil at India Gate. Splashed across social network platforms and television channels, Janvi’s case was widely publicised until she was found a week later near a park in the Janakpuri area. Hanging from her neck was a placard with her father’s name and number.

Excerpts from the interview

That entire week, my family as well as everyone in our area gave up all other work to look for Janvi. We ensured that everyone heard our voice and saw the photos of our child, and we were really active on social media. We divided ourselves into various teams, one to reach out to the Press, another to handle social media, one to give out pamphlets, one to follow up with the police and so on. The media also really took up our issue, and the continuous coverage spurred the police on.

Thankfully, our efforts were not in vain. And only I know the importance of the moment when I heard she was found… It was like my daughter was reborn. Except for her head, which was completely shaved, Janvi was absolutely fine. Things are back to normal now, and Janvi is going to pre-school.

The police haven’t found the kidnappers yet. They tell us it might have been a childless couple who thought they’ll steal our baby and make her their own. But we are really scared and keep a close eye on Janvi. My advice to any other parent is to get the word out to the media if their child ever goes missing, both social media and news channels, because that greatly increases the chances of finding their child again.









Published on December 05, 2014

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