“Nobody seems to be concerned about the missing children. This is the irony,” stated a bench of the Supreme Court on Feb 5. The remark is indicative of the apathy shown by the Centre and state governments toward the issue of missing children. The court had directed the Centre and the various states to file status reports on the status of the missing children in the country and in their states in March 2012. The notices were issued by Justices Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar in response to a Public Interest Litigation by the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan on the escalating numbers of missing children in India. Unfortunately, a year later, these status reports are still to be filed by the Centre and several state governments.
The Supreme Court, taking serious note of the absence of the chief secretaries of Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu despite being directed to be physically present and not through their counsels, threatened to issue non bailable arrest warrants against them. The West Bengal counsel incidentally submitted that the status report had not been filed since there was no instruction, which the SC took exception to. Of the five States whose chief secretaries had been specifically asked to be present, only the chief secretaries of Goa and Orissa were present. Not only the Centre but also the governments of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Uttrakhand, West Bengal and Union Territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, NCT of Delhi and Lakhshadweep have not filed their status reports, the court noted.
The numbers are scary. According to the figures filed by BBA in its PIL, over 1.7 lakh children had gone missing between January 2008 and January 2010. The exact figures given were 1,17,480 children who had gone missing, of which 41,546 children were still untraced. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, one child goes missing in India every eight minutes. Forty per cent of these children will never be found and will end up as mere statistics in an ever growing list of missing children in this country, children who are picked up from streets, from outside their homes, from railway stations, even from hospitals as newborns. Many of these children will end up trafficked, either as cheap labour, or to beggar syndicates or into the sex trade. For their parents it is a nightmare they live through every single day, the waiting for news that their child has been found, the hoping against hope, catching a sudden glimpse of someone in a crowded place who resembles their child, receiving information from distant places, that perhaps their child has been spotted there, only to rush there and be disappointed.
In 2011, 15,284 children were kidnapped, up 43 percent from the previous year. Around 3,517 cases of child trafficking were reported in the same year, buying and selling girls for the sex trade, for marriage, as well as trafficking of children for the organ trade, as drug mules, into bonded labour in the unorganised sector and to begging syndicates across the country. According to unconfirmed reports, there are close on 800 organised child trafficking gangs across the country. Traffickers target children from the lower income groups, where the families do not have the financial strength or the political connections to pursue their cases with the authorities. They pick up children who aren’t watched over too carefully from slums and congested areas. Merely a handful of the children who get kidnapped are taken for ransom. Sometimes, if the parents pay up, or the police locates the kidnapped child, the child is reunited with its family. Sometimes, despite paying up, some kidnapped children are brutalised and killed.
The highest number of untraced children are from Delhi, followed by Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Bangalore, city wise. According to the BBA, the number of missing children is highest in Maharashtra followed by West Bengal, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh and the number of untraced missing children is highest in West Bengal followed by Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Sadly, 75 per cent of missing children in Kolkata and 65 per cent in Delhi “continue to remain untraced” according to a two-year study, titled ‘Trafficking of Women and Children in India’, compiled by Shankar Sen and P M Nair, with a team of ISS researchers. The report also found that sometimes, these children are actually sold to traffickers by their own family or people who know them, at times for as little as Rs 5,000. The survey interviewed over 500 rescued children who were now in homes. Of these, 40 percent told the surveyors that they had been sold when they were younger than ten, the rest were sold when they were between 11 and 14 years of age. Of these, only a mere seven percent of the rescued children stated they had been trafficked by total strangers.
India has the largest number of child labourers in the world, even though child labour is prohibited by the law. Data suggests that 12.66 million children are employed illegally in cigarette, bidi, firework and carpet weaving factories. Children are also employed at construction sites and in homes as domestic workers. Many of these are victims of child trafficking.
NGO’s working in the field estimate that barely 10 percent of all missing children cases are registered with the police. An overwhelming 90 percent disappear into the great morass of the never seen never heard of again. The way missing children are investigated by our authorities is another reason why recovery rates are so low. Except for a few states, FIRs are not registered for missing children. The name of the missing child is just entered into a list of missing persons at the police station where it is reported. This does not lead to an in depth investigation. Photos of the missing child are sent to all police stations in cities like Mumbai but no active investigation into the disappearance of the child is done, unless the person who reports the child missing asks the police to file a case of kidnapping. Post the horrific Nithari murders in 2006, the law in Delhi requires a case of kidnapping to be filed by the police if a child is not located within 24 hours of being reported missing. In the Nithari killings, children had begun going missing from the neighbourhood for two years, but the police refused to register complaints or investigate the cases.
As a start, the police have begun sharing an integrated database of missing children, www.zipnet.in, as well as unidentified children found. Some of the parents of the children on the database are so poor, they don’t even have a recent photograph of the child they can provide. There is an interesting recent initiative by the Delhi police where it goes into the slums, photographs and registers all the children so that in the event of the child going missing recent photographs and details of the child are available. What is of immediate need though is an integrated country wide database that allows states to track missing children who are trafficked across states and work in tandem to rescue trafficked children, as well as trace children who might have run away for reasons ranging from dysfunctional homes, to exam pressure to a desire to see a big city. A standard protocol procedure to deal with a case of missing children needs to be put into place across the country by investigation and law enforcement agencies.
The Supreme Court’s annoyance on this issue is well justified. The “last opportunity” given to the Centre and the states to file their affidavits is now February 19. Whether the status reports will be filed by February 19 or not remains to be seen, but the fact remains that we, as a country, are not concerned about our missing children. They disappear into files, remain photographs on posters and morph into mere statistics. The parents live through the nightmare every single day of not knowing whether their child is alive or dead, or if alive, living under what unimaginable conditions. And we need to hang our heads in shame at our collective apathy to this terrifying issue.