The Dear Missing

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The loneliness of families whose loved ones are lost

It is the middle of a November afternoon. The Diwali holidays are on, and Siddhi Sadan on Fitwala Road in Elphinstone, Mumbai, rings with the sound of children. A group of four sits and plays a game at the stairs on the second floor. Two floors above, in the last room of a corner to the right, a five-year-old child prays by the idol of the family deity for his sister. “He was really close to her,” says Nisha Sawant, 33, their mother.

Two months ago, little Arjun’s sister, 13-year-old Saloni, returned from school to this very home and had lunch. Till 2.15 pm, as family members remember, she was home. But a few minutes later, Saloni was gone. Her tuition bag was ready, but the fact that it had not been taken led Nisha to assume that her daughter had gone to the neighbour’s house or visit some friend in the building. When there was no sign of her till 5.30 pm, Nisha and her husband Hemant, who runs a garments and gifting business, got worried. “We checked her tuition class,” says Nisha, “They said she hadn’t come there.”

Close circuit TV footage caught Saloni—a class VIII student at Parel’s RM Bhatt school—at Elphinstone Road railway station at 2.19 pm, four minutes after her mother last noticed her at home. She was at Mumbai Central at 2.29 pm. But she left no trail from there.

 “A few days later, on 6 October, I was at Grant Road station at 11.10 pm heading for Elphinstone, when I saw Saloni on the opposite platform,” says Hemant, 42, a retired Army officer. “She was wearing the same black jeans and yellow T-shirt as when she left home.” Hemant would have leapt onto and across the tracks to reach his daughter, but a train entered the platform just then. “By the time it left, she had got onto a train heading towards Marine Lines.” CCTV footage shows her at the station at 11.18 pm. That was the last the Sawants heard of their daughter.

Saloni’s ‘missing’ posters dot the city’s railway stations now, asking anyone who happens to spot her to contact her parents. The Sawants have received some calls, but none has given them any lead on their daughter’s whereabouts.

To the police, Saloni’s case meant yet another flip of the counter. On an average, 150 people go missing in Mumbai every month. At the NM Joshi Marg Police Station in Mumbai, where her case is registered, 90 ‘missing’ cases have entered the records since 1 January 2012. Across the city, as many as 1,716 people were reported missing between 1 January 2012 and 18 November 2012. People are also frequently found; of the 90 missing on the NM Joshi Marg rolls, 70 have been found. It is usually cases of children who run away to enjoy a trip their parents would have barred them from, or young couples who elope and return to a family that is relieved to see them alive and well.

Unlucky families spend their days putting up posters at stations, bus stands and other public places they can think of, hoping that someone spots the face and calls them. Laxman Bahadur Singh, 47, a resident of Andheri, has gone as far as Malad in the western suburbs to Govandi in the central suburbs to paste missing posters of his 80-year-old father Bahadur Singh, who went missing on 15 October.

“Twenty days after he went missing, I got a call saying someone had spotted him in Govandi three days earlier. The caller had seen one of the posters we had put up in the trains and at a few stations. We rushed to the area, but it was three days late, and we haven’t got any leads on him since.”

Bahadur, says Laxman, was an active healthy man and had on 15 October left his house near Bandra Bus Depot to visit his wife who had been admitted to the nearby Bhabha Hospital for a fever that could have been malaria or dengue. “We realised around 2.30 pm that day that he was not traceable. We went to places around and were told that he had been spotted in Bandra East and was trying to find his way to the western side,” says the son. The family even distributed handbills slipped into newspapers in the Khar-Bandra area. A week later, they were told by the owner of a paan shop in Khar that their father had stopped by a few days earlier asking for directions. “He had no money on him. He asked the shop owner for a bidi, which he was given free. After that, he left. The next we heard was that he was spotted in Govandi.”

Registering a complaint at the local police station only means filling up forms and adding to the statistics of the Missing Persons’ Bureau, located at Shivaji Market near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Officers at the Bureau say their role is to simply take down the names and details of the person. A 10 by 12 inch photograph (preferably in the same clothes that the person was last seen, a requirement that is perhaps as ironic as it is necessary) is handed over to Doordarshan for broadcast on its Gumshuda Talaash Kendra programme, which is aired four times a week. The national broadcaster’s Delhi office, which collates such information from across the country, says it gets an average of 1,500 reports every month. But who watches TV for photos of who is missing? Does a face posted at a platform you rush across to catch your train or leave in a hurry to get home strike anyone?

There are a few, even in a busy city like Mumbai, who try to do their bit. Rakesh Mishra, 30, an ambulance driver for Holy Spirit Hospital in Andheri, goes out of his way to help. Standing outside the hospital one morning, he says he takes such posters around the city and tries to paste them wherever he goes. And his job does take him around the city.

Mishra contacted Laxman Singh when he saw his father’s posters, and offered to paste them across town. “I pasted them at Goregaon, Chembur, etcetera.” He pursues it as a cause, with due dedication. “Once I found a small child alone at Aarey Colony. I stopped and asked him who he was and where he was from. He gave us a Goregaon address and I went and dropped him there.”

This child was lucky. Most ‘missing’ people are not. Many run away from home to escape abuse—mental, physical or sexual—and find that the streets of Mumbai are not as hospitable as they seem in the movies. Left to fend for themselves, they often start begging or get sucked into crime rackets.

Dipesh Tank, a 27-year-old who works at the ad agency Cartwheel Creators, recently found a woman lying on a street in Bandra. “She was getting convulsions.” As Tank and his friend turned the woman over, they found severe burn injuries on her hands and chest. They immediately took her to the local Bhabha Hospital. She was later shifted to Lokmanya Tilak Hospital (popularly known as Sion hospital), where it was found that she also had a skull fracture. “Half her brain was not functional and she was initially refusing treatment.” Tank and his friends also found that the woman had been admitted to Bhabha once before, but had run away mid-treatment; a man who was trying to abuse her had been arrested by the cops but was later let off on bail.

Now, Tank and his friends have managed to get her some protection at the hospital and also a woman caretaker. Her name, they have gathered, is Roshini and she says she is from Islampur, which is around 65 km from Patna. “Asked how she got to Mumbai, all she says is ‘Madam brought me here’.” She has mentioned a family: her father’s name is Tamaan, her mother’s name is Madina, and her brother’s name is Shakeel. Roshini, who seems in her twenties, also says that she has four sisters. Now, it is up to the police to locate her family in Islampur.

It is an added responsibility for an already over-worked and understaffed police force. Once a missing complaint is filed—and there is no ‘24 hour’ limit within which it must be done—the cops send its details to the Bureau and upload the information on Pictures are sent to all police stations, in case the person turns up somewhere. Officers are also kept posted over the wireless. But the two officers of the police station—one male and the other female—who are assigned the case also have to report for emergency duties (such as bandobasts) while they investigate it.

In a city like Mumbai, that happens far too often. Technology is no help either. Neither Saloni nor Bahadur Singh had a cellphone on their person. Many runaways either keep their phones switched off or replace their SIM cards. “In such cases, we try to locate the IMIE number of the phone,” says Senior Inspector Prakash N Jadhav of the Bureau.

Navnath Shinde, CEO of The Children Aid Society, which operates shelters for children at Dongri, Mankhurd and other parts of Mumbai, says the police bring at least 10 runaways to their homes every day. “Some days, the number goes up to 200. We get children from as far as Nepal, Bangladesh and even Pakistan.”

Maharashtra’s Women and Child Welfare Minister Varsha Gaikwad says there are 1,100 homes in the state for children, 46 of which are run by the state and the rest by NGOs. Efforts are made to rehabilitate the children and reunite them with their families, she says.

Joining the dots is also not an easy task. Among the many who go missing, there are some whose home circumstances have been traumatic, says psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty, who was a member of the State Co-ordination Committee appointed by the Bombay High Court to look into an abuse case at Kavdas shelter in the Shahpur area of Thane district. “Some children hop onto a train and by the end of the journey forget where their home was. Elderly people may have faced a sudden loss of memory or would be at an early stage of Alzheimer’s that hasn’t been detected. Sometimes, they are severely depressed with their circumstances and leave home.” In such cases, Dr Shetty says, if the child is picked up by an NGO or state-welfare organisation and given appropriate care and treatment, s/he may voluntarily reveal her/his identity and address, enabling the authorities to contact the family.

At least children have it easier finding shelter. Homes for lost or homeless adults and the elderly are far fewer. Roshini’s is a case in point. But there are places where they can be given adequate care and treatment (many of them bear injuries and have neglected ailments). The Social & Evangelical Association for Love (Seal) ashram at Panvel, on the outskirts of Mumbai, accepts people of all age groups regardless of their mental and physical condition. Pastor Biju Samuel, associate director of the ashram, says that most inmates are off the streets and railway platforms of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. Here too, efforts are made to reunite these people with their families. So far, the 1999-founded ashram has had 196 successful reunions, says Samuel.

Meanwhile, what India needs is a central database of information and pictures of those missing. If information on people found without antecedents is uploaded too, match-making algorithms could be put to good effect. In a country so keen on a UID network for a variety of welfare schemes, this is one database application that should not be neglected.

Otherwise, families with someone missing will have no hope of closure. This is a suffering that information alone can put an end to. As Laxman Singh says, “You don’t know in what state the person is. If he is well and needs any help. You are always anxious for news.”