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82,101 children went missing across India in 2013-14 (till February), of whom 48,688 were from West Bengal and 17,758 from Uttar Pradesh
New Delhi: On 18 November 2013, he received a call from a police officer as he was narrating the story of his four-year-old daughter’s disappearance to a child rights NGO (non-governmental organization). He listened to the caller patiently—he knew it was about her. When he heard the word “dead”, the 31-year-old stood up and left the NGO’s office, groping his way down the stairs with tears running down his face. This wasn’t the news he had hoped for.
The police had found a dead body in a stream in Trilokpuri, about 300m from his house; it resembled the description given by the family. The 31-year-old saw a crowd around the body—it may or may not have been his daughter. It was 15 days after her disappearance, and the stench of decomposing flesh was unbearable. The clothes appeared to match what she had been wearing the day she disappeared—he had last seen her playing outside their house during Diwali.
82,101 children went missing across India in 2013-14 (till February), of whom 48,688 were from West Bengal and 17,758 from Uttar Pradesh, according to government figures. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 236,014 children went missing during 2009-2011 and out of these, 75,808 remained untraced.
In Delhi, 6,494 children went missing in 2013—about 18 a day, according to a report by the NGO NavShrishti, based on RTI (right to information) responses from the Delhi police. 1,433 of them are still missing.
“It is an organized crime. Multiple gangs are responsible for this. They mostly target areas which have unauthorized colonies, or are closer to the border, or where there are more labour-class people living. From 2006 to now, except for a couple of years when the numbers had gone down, the numbers are rising,” said Reena Banerjee, Nav Shrishti’s founder and secretary.
The outer district and Northeast, Southeast and East Delhi districts have reported the most missing children, the NGO, which works for child rights and women empowerment, stated in the report.
A 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on trafficking of women and children said that one-third of children reported missing every year in India remained untraced, and that many of these “missing” children were, in fact, trafficked. Banerjee claims that trafficking, child labour, illegal adoption and prostitution are still some of the main reasons why children go missing.
Ever since his daughter disappeared, the 31-year-old would visit the police stations, asking for news. After searching fruitlessly for a few days, the police told him that if he could find her himself, they would give him an award. A week after they found the dead body, the police arrested a juvenile drug addict, but the girl’s family doesn’t believe he was responsible for her disappearance.
When he saw the decomposed body, the 31-year-old couldn’t believe it was his daughter. He sought a DNA report along with the post-mortem, both of which he claims have yet to be sent to him. NavShrishti submitted his case to Delhi Legal Services Authority and the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights. However, there has been no progress since.
In the cases up till 2009-10, the police in Delhi did not even file first information reports (FIRs) for about 90% of them, stopping at making entries in the general diary, Banerjee said, based on data collected by NavShrishti.
The Supreme Court in January 2013 had made it mandatory for police stations across the country to compulsorily register complaints of any missing minor and appoint a special officer to handle cases involving juveniles. Delhi had already implemented strict laws after the gruesome 2006 Nithari serial killings in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, that claimed the lives of 17 children.
After the Nithari case, a committee under P.C. Sharma, constituted by the NHRC to examine cases of missing children across the country, stated in a report that, despite a “plethora” of government initiatives for the protection of child rights, there was little evidence of “substantive” work in the field. It also said that the police and local administration had “failed to even acknowledge the problem”.
In 2009, the women and child development ministry included the need to launch a network for tracing missing children in the Integrated Child Protection Scheme policy document. Four years later, the ministry announced the creation of the missing children portal. In 2011, the ministry of home affairs published an advisory to all states detailing steps to tabulate every missing child case and various methods by which the police can recover these children. The advisory recognized that trafficking in human beings was an organized crime and that the response to it should also be organized.
However, even though most NGOs working for child rights claim that the number of missing children is rising in India, there is no consensus, even between government agencies, on an exact figure.
“The figures of missing children collected from RTIs, ZIPNET (Zonal Integrated Police Network) and NCRB are different, which shows the lack of convergence between child protection agencies. This is a matter of serious concern for implementation of child rights in the state (Delhi),” Soha Moitra, regional director (north) for the NGO Child Rights and You, said at a public hearing.
The government should post child-friendly officers and maintain a constant watch at all borders and “vulnerable areas”, and work in tandem with civil society, Banerjee said. “Everyone can help. Recently, it was with the help of a milkman that we rescued a child who was forced into child labour.”
Meanwhile, the 31-year-old is still waiting for the DNA report to confirm whether the dead body was his daughter’s. Like many others in India, he hopes someone will tell him his child is safe and will be home soon.
Vanshika Agarwal and Rachel Ratan contributed to this story.