Whenever Shabra Khatun watches a television report on child abuse, she spends a sleepless night. She wonders what could have happened to her beloved Guriya, 12, who opened the door for her father after his night shift five years ago, went out to visit the community toilet and never came back.
“She would be 17 today,” says Khatun, a resident of New Delhi’s Jehangirpuri area. Guriya is one of India’s countless missing children. A total of 90,654 children were reported missing across India in 2011, and 34,406 remained untraced, according to Home Ministry data.
Rakesh Senger, activist of a New Delhi non-profit Bachpan Bachao Andolan (the save childhood campaign), says data collected by his organisation from individual districts across India for 2009-2010 indicates the tally of untraced children is nearer 40,000. Others suggest a range up to 50,000. “Many of these children come from poorer sections of the society, largely urban slums and poor village homes. They could be abducted or they could be runaways, lost, abandoned—but they often end up being targets of trafficking,” Senger says.
“They are pushed into forced labour at homes, roadside eateries, farms or absorbed into prostitution, the organ trade or begging rackets far away from their homes, where it’s difficult to trace them.” More than 15,000 children remain untraced in India’s capital. They are mostly from slums called resettlement colonies. The missing are largely the children of migrant workers settled in these slums, Delhi Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat says.
“Those who are genuinely lost are found. Those who are taken away are never found,” says Leelavati, a woman who uses only the first name, whose eight-year-old son Sonu went missing from a Jehangirpuri slum in 2009.
“I recently dreamed we found Sonu and lost him again,” Leelavati says as she pulls out a fading photograph hidden against her bosom. One of the most horrifying cases in the capital was the disappearance of over two dozen children and young women from slums in an area called Nithari, on the city’s outskirts, in 2005-2006.
Sloppy police investigations led nowhere and it was by chance that some bones and remains were found in the vicinity of a palatial house in the area, leading to a trail of serial murder. The police have a standard operating procedure for cases of missing children, but it is often not followed. Complaints may not be registered. Personnel who are the first level of contact for parents are often insensitive to the poor. Complaints are not registered and parents of teenaged girls are often told that their daughter must have eloped, says Azhar Abir, Guriya’s father.
“They bully the poor, those who have neither money nor influence,” Shabra Khatun adds.
Both she and Leelavati claim they had to pay money at the local police station when they registered their complaints.
“They say the money was needed to put out notices in newspapers,” Khatun says. Bhagat says crime registration is free and parents should complain to senior officials when such things happen. “They don’t let us meet senior officers,” says Khatun. Suman Nalwa, an officer with the Delhi Police’s women and children cell, says they are trying to weed out this problem through greater coordination with aid groups.
Senger says traffickers are out there, everywhere, just waiting to spot and lure disadvantaged children. Senger’s organisation has worked with the police to rescue hundreds of children from embroidery and bangle-making workshops, from the clutches of illegal domestic-servant-placement agencies and from farms in western Uttar Pradesh where they were found working as bonded labour.
Bhagat says the issue of missing children should be seen as a socio-economic problem.
“Conditions at home are often difficult for these children. Some girls elope, boys run away to look for work without realising what they are getting in to. Some of them may not want to return home.”
A majority of these children are aged between 12 and 18, Bhagat says. At least 60 per cent of the missing in Delhi are girls.
“The slum dwellers often do not even have photographs of their children.
“We have launched a scheme in the resettlement colonies where we get photos taken and hand them over to parents. We run awareness campaigns with NGOs so that parents keep contact with their children when they go to work.” “But my daughter went missing from school,” says Rekha Kewal, Leelavati’s neighbour. “Two girls came back with her schoolbag and the headmistress says she does not know where Puja went. She was only 7.