Their small, tender hands perhaps ought to be holding a toy or a doll. Instead, the work-hardened unclean palms stretch out towards passers by on the street seeking alms.
This year, the Chennai police rescued 55 such children who had been forced into begging.
A few days ago, a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl were rescued from a couple found begging near the T Nagar bus terminus. Similarly, in Kilpauk, the police picked up a 14-year-old girl, clad in the colours of Sabarimala devotees, seeking alms, with a woman and a boy of her age in tow. The woman and the boy escaped on seeing the police.
They were among the fortunate few who were rescued by the Juvenile Aid Police Unit (JAPU), an arm of the Chennai City Police that works with children who are victims of abuse.
A cursory look at this year’s stats suggests that a constant stream of runaway children kept JAPU busy. It rescued 960 children till November, way higher than the 338 rescued in 2011. JAPU sources said that at least 155 of the children rescued this year were from other states.
JAPU has handed over 361 children back to their parents after investigations, the officials said. Among the recent cases was a 14-year-old boy from Arakkonam, who was intercepted at the Marina Beach along with his friend. The boy’s father, a labourer, had moved to Perambur here and worked hard to give him education. But the boy, instead of going to school, began doing odd jobs like cleaning water tanks and selling plants without the knowledge of his father. He was apparently earning money to have ‘fun’ with his friends.
The police called his father and the family was counselled before the boy was handed over.
‘Take Care of Your Children’
Since a sizable section of runaway children were from other states, the city police have written to their counterparts in Odisha and Bihar to check trafficking of kids. The city section of JAPU wrote to the Directors General of Police of the two states earlier this year. It is still awaiting their response.
“These children are hired for work by enticing their parents with an advance, which could be as low as `5,000, plus monthly pay. Generally, those who hire are persons known to the family, such as relatives or neighbours. Once hired, the children end up as bonded labourers. Besides, the monthly salary is generally a mirage,” said Shyamala Devi, Assistant Commissioner of Police and Nodal Officer, JAPU, Chennai.
She said some of the children rescued were those who escaped from their workplace after physical abuse. There are others who are found begging or hawking stuff on the streets and there are others who simply runaway and wander about the streets.
The JAPU, started in 2009, has two units, each headed by an Inspector, and 22 others. While Unit I covers North and West Zone, Unit II covers South and East Zone where every day, a police team visits public places like the Marina Beach, railway stations and bus termini.