India’s Missing Children

Too many get lost. Too little is done about it
Crisis
(Photos: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)
Surendra Deshmukh, senior inspector, CST Police Station
Social activist Vijay Vaidya

On 1 February, two-and-a-half-year-old Pintu Kharat went missing with his mother from their Chembur residence in Mumbai. Father Subhash and his neighbours launched a frantic search for them. On 6 February, one of the search parties chanced upon the mother wandering aimlessly at Kalyan railway station. Pintu, however, was not with her. In severe depression, she had left home on her own, but had no clue about her toddler’s whereabouts. Nor did she remember anything since she left. All she could recall in her daze was that she had boarded a suburban train and reached the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) with Pintu.

On that scrap of information, the CST police embarked on an intensive hunt for the missing child. Since the parents did not even have a photograph of Pintu, it was tough. Six police teams were constituted, which, with the help of social workers, combed railway stations, bus terminals, orphanages and children’s homes. Twenty days after Pintu had disappeared, a team found him at Shezhar Chhaya, an orphanage at Vasai, a northern suburb. “The search team found that a toddler had been brought in by social workers who had found him lying alone on the platform of the Vasai railway station,” says Surendra Deshmukh, senior inspector, CST Police Station. “The father recognised the child and he was reunited with his family.”

Pintu is a lucky child, says Deshmukh. He was found despite the odds against it, and that too in just 10 days of police effort. Had he been missing for five more days, the intensity of the police search would have been reduced and the teams disbanded, in line with an unwritten rule for a police force short of manpower.

The CST police station, a major hub in Mumbai for cases of missing children, has three women constables dedicated to all disappearances (even of adults). “Only when there is a complicated case do we set up a separate unit to track the missing person or child,” according to Deshmukh. After a complaint is filed, this unit spends two weeks hunting full-time for the person. If unsuccessful, the unit’s cops take on other work while keeping additionaltrack of the case.

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In India, a child goes missing every eight minutes. Forty per cent of these children are never found, reveal statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). In all, there are officially over 55,000 missing children in the country. However, that might be a gross underestimate, given how tardy states are in supplying the NCRB with information.

An extensive study done by the NGO Childline pegs the yearly average of missing children in the country at 44,475. Childline finds that Maharashtra, with an annual average of 13,881, has the largest number of missing children in the country. Among cities, Mumbai is the worst, Kolkata next.

If that is not bad enough, government figures reveal that 2012 recorded a 43 per cent jump over the previous year in the number of children who went missing. Some of this may be the result of increased reporting of cases, but it does indicate a worrisome trend.

“The number of children below five who go missing is steadily increasing every year,” says Vijay Vaidya, a former journalist and social activist who helps parents trace missing children. He has been doing this since 1968, when he set up the Bepatta Vyakti Shodh Samiti in Mumbai; the first child Vaidya helped trace was Suhas, a 12-year old then. He has had many successes since, and has maintained records of various issues related to missing children across the country. “It is depressing when you cannot find a missing child,” he says.

Part of the problem is that the law on missing children in India is inadequate. In the absence of a legal definition of a ‘missing child’, each state follows its own rules. Also, lack of coordination between states makes it difficult to track such children, says Vaidya.

Social workers also complain of the shoddy manner in which such cases are treated by the law enforcement authorities. Such cases, sources reveal, are usually accorded low priority by the police, who are required to focus their efforts on maintaining law-and-order and checking serious crime. In most states, the police do not even register an FIR (first information report), they just put the name on their list of missing people at the police station where the child is reported missing; and without an FIR, an indepth investigation is almost never done.

Despite these handicaps, the police do have a few successes to show. Three days after a seven-month-old boy was kidnapped in March 2012 from the premises of the Cama and Albess Hospital in South Mumbai, the police reunited him with his parents. An alert citizen who had seen a toddler crying bitterly at a dargah near Bombay Hospital (across Azad Maidan) called the police and helped the parents get him back.

It was partly a case of maternal negligence; the mother had taken the baby to the hospital on 1 March for treatment of a rash. There, an unknown woman befriended her. Later, when the mother needed to fill in some forms for her son’s treatment, she left him with the woman and went inside the hospital. When she re-emerged, she found that both the infant and woman had vanished. The boy’s father Murli Kale lodged a complaint with the Azad Maidan police. Again, it was sheer luck that the baby was found. The woman suspected of kidnapping him, however, is still at large.

A day before the seven-month-old was found, another lost child, four-year-old Kajal Baware, was located at the same dargah. The girl told her mother Noorie that she had been “taken away” from their footpath residence near Metro junction by an old man. She escaped from his clutches near the place she was found. The kidnapper is yet to be identified and nabbed, however.

Though this tomb has been a beggar’s hub and several other missing infants have been found here, the police do not want to take suo motu action against the beggars. “What do we do after we arrest them? They will be bailed out,” says a policeman who has of late been patrolling the vicinity.

As the case lingers and police attention turns elsewhere, the role of social workers assumes importance. In Pintu’s case, it was social worker Parvati Mahalingam Dravid who helped the police find the child. She works at a tiny tenement in the congested Tilaknagar area of Chembur. “I help those who do not have the resources to track their children,” says Dravid, “There are more children who disappear from poorer areas [of the city] than from building complexes, which have security guards. When I start looking for a missing child, I know that I may not be successful, but you have to keep hoping that the missing child is found.”

Children are at high risk at train and bus terminals. Those in the know say that touts hang around these places and kidnap unattended children. They are experts at grabbing kids even if their parents are close by. “How many of us question the parents of a crying child?” asks Vaidya, “Perhaps if vigilant citizens ask questions, we will be able to save many more children.”

At Mumbai’s overcrowded CST station, CCTV footage records can only be stored for seven days. “There are over 100 cameras,” says Deshmukh, “It is an enormous task looking through it.” Yet, it was his unwavering belief that a particular CCTV recording could help identify a kidnapper that helped trace two-year-old Sangeeta Pawar last year. The child had been kidnapped at night while she slept next to her parents along with other passengers in the station’s common waiting zone. The police officer sat up through the night perusing video grabs taken by the camera overlooking the spot. “I could see a black dot moving,” he says, “I checked footage from other cameras close to this one, and slowly a picture of a handicapped man emerged. He had got off a long-distance train, come into the common waiting area, looked around, and sat next to the sleeping Sangeeta. After some time, he walked away with the child asleep on his shoulder.”

The footage was edited and flashed on national television. A constable in Haridwar who had seen the footage happened to be on duty at the railway station there when he saw a lame man walking out with a sleeping girl child. On a hunch, he stopped the man and asked him about the child’s mother. The man seemed scared. He was taken to a police station, where he confessed. And little Sangeeta was rescued.

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The first time that missing children came to be seen as an issue of serious public concern in Bombay was back in 1969, when Datta Tamhane, a councilor, raised it in the Maharashtra Legislative Council. The late Bal Thackeray was also actively involved in the issue around that time. At a meeting held that year on missing children at CKP Hall in Dadar, the Shiv Sena leader had even demanded the setting up of an independent police department to trace missing children.

About two years earlier, the Central Government had set up the Jyotna Shah Committee to study the issue. One of its recommendations included an independent department to investigate these cases. Though there is a Missing Persons Bureau at various police Commissionerates across the country, the personnel of this department are burdened with other investigations, which relegates the primary work of this department to the backburner.

On 8 August 2012, in a Rajya Sabha statement in response to a question on missing children in India, Minister of State for Home Affairs Jitendra Singh said that of the almost 60,000 children missing in 2011 from 28 states and Union Territories (by NCRB records), more than 22,000 were yet to be found.

Vaidya says that the number of untraced children as a proportion of all who are recorded as missing may not be as high as official figures suggest. Some parents do not disclose the real story of a child’s disappearance. Many fail to report the child’s return. “In police files, such a child is still a missing statistic,” he says. Even so, the NCRB’s numbers on overall cases are also highly unreliable. Police sources say that only about half of all missing children are reported to it by India’s states in the first place. In 2011, for example, Maharashtra, Odisha, Goa, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand and Punjab did not report any missing children, while West Bengal reported the most—12,000 cases. It’s followed by Madhya Pradesh with 7,797 cases and Delhi with 5,111 cases.

In September 2012, the Social Statistics Division of the Union Government released a report indicating that kidnapping is by far the highest recorded crime against children. In 2011, kidnap cases of children rose 24 per cent over the previous year. The increase in 2012 was also grim. These statistics include kidnapping of children for export to other countries, as also abduction for ransom or enforced begging. The report makes a note of horrors such as children being trafficked for organ extraction (for forced transplants) and minor girls being abducted for child prostitution.

These are all crimes crying out for attention. It should surprise no one that India has been placed on the Human Trafficking Watchlist by the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. No doubt, it is a global crisis; according to Unicef, an estimated 1.2 million children are victims of trafficking across the world every year. Indian poverty makes it a plum target for traffickers. Police sources estimate that there are about 815 gangs (with over 5,000 members) that run kidnapping rackets for prostitution and begging across the country. The arrest of Azhar Mohammed and his accomplices by the Delhi Police earlier this year was a breakthrough, as he was responsible for kidnapping about 100 children from Jharkhand and West Bengal.

After the 2007 Nithari case of kidnapped children being killed for their organs, the National Human Rights Commission had constituted a committee under PC Sharma to examine the issue of missing children and offer guidelines to help trace children and restore them to their families. Says the committee’s report: ‘There has been a plethora of documents in the form of plans, policies, programmes, schemes and the like brought forth by the Government since Independence pledging to protect and promote the rights of children, but the records of national governance, public investment and development action yield little matching evidence of substantive work for children.’

As for judicial intervention, the Supreme Court has censured the Centre and states on two occasions—most recently in January 2013—for not taking the issue of missing children seriously. This is what Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir had to say on the failure of the chief secretaries of Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu to appear at a hearing on a writ petition filed by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan on the insensitivity of Indian states towards missing children: “You are playing the fool with the court. Nobody seems to be concerned about missing children. This is the irony.”

The petition had pointed to missing children being exploited as forced labour and commercial sex workers, and to children being put up for illegal adoption. It sought the apex court’s intervention to direct the Centre, states and UTs to come up with a national action plan; to treat the kidnapping or trafficking of children as non-bailable and cognisable offences; and to prepare a national database on missing children.

Earlier, in guidelines issued on 11 November 2002 in response to a petition (case of Horilal vs Police Commissioner of Delhi and Others), the Supreme Court had categorically stated that in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, investigating officers must search redlight areas rightaway for missing minor girls.

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Mumbai is where efforts to tackle the problem must begin. According to Preeti Patkar, director of Prerna, an NGO involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of women and children, the city “is the main source, transit point and destination for missing children”.

Efforts to screen redlight areas are complicated by their dispersal across the city. At one time, the Kamathipura belt had a concentration of the flesh trade. Now, it is harder to spot the activity. Corruption weakens law enforcement too. “Many madams [of brothels] offer minors—boys and girls—first to policemen and political workers of importance in the area,” says a social worker, “This is a regular practice in this country.”

It is also hard to check the mushrooming of illegal adoption agencies, which run clandestine operations. Demand for adoptees is soaring, says Shailaja Heramb, who has been working closely with adoptive parents, because of an increase in cases of infertility. “Many parents just want a child,” she says, “They never question the origin of the child. So they could be taking a kidnapped child as their own.”

In a startling case of kidnapping not too long ago, a female collegian made off with her neighbour’s one-month-old from an upmarket Uttar Pradesh suburb and brought the child in a bag to Bhiwandi in Maharashtra. Since her parents were still holidaying in UP, she kept the infant at her residence and asked the domestic help not to report to work until her parents got back. Then she hid the baby in an abandoned godown, feeding the child only sugared water. All this while, she kept in regular touch with the child’s family and kept asking about the family’s efforts to trace the baby.

However, the UP Police got suspicious of the collegian’s daily calls to the missing baby’s parents, and decided to interrogate her. She confessed.

It was 10 days before the infant, who was suffering extreme dehydration, could be rescued from the Bhiwandi godown by the police. The kidnapper’s own parents were also left in shock by the sordid sequence of events, as the infant’s parents were close family friends. Her motive, it seems, was no less bizarre: she wanted money so that she could fund her Bollywood ambitions.