Ritu Sarin Indian Express Feb 4,2007
NEW DELHI, FEBRUARY 3 :Pushpa Devi lives in Laxmi Nagar, not more than a 30-minute drive from Nithari. Like millions across the country, she, too, would have watched the details unfold — of missing children, their suspected remains, bone fragments and the rage of their helpless parents. For her, however, the story had an all-too familiar ring.
Not only because her daughter Poonam Lal went missing for 10 years — she has since been traced — but it was her case that, five years ago, prompted the Supreme Court to issue a detailed list of do-s and don’ts on missing children. It’s a 12-point list that, for all practical purposes, gathers dust as police forces, across states, plead helplessness when asked the question: Where have the children gone?
In fact, missing children is the veritable black hole in law-enforcement. As an investigative series from several states will show, just like Nithari, where police failed to even acknowledge the problem, elsewhere, too, the typical police response is: the missing child is the parents’ problem, not ours.
And if Nithari shows that a missing child may end up buried in a neighbour’s backyard, the investigation shows that they can, as easily, end up in several places: as cheap labour in roadside shops, prostitutes in a brothel, exploited in the child-porn industry, kidnapped by the beggar mafia or even trafficked abroad.
Says Justice A S Anand, former chief of the National Human Rights Commission who, in 2005, sponsored the most definitive study yet of trafficking in women and children in India: “Where are all these missing children? They have obviously not vanished into thin air. Children are our assets and we only do lip service to the problem of missing children. Even when a report of a missing child is lodged with the police, it is treated as a minor issue. Everyone thinks the child will show up and if that does not happen, the case is forgotten and closed.”
The reason is simple, say police officers: given that a missing child, by definition, is one who could move or be moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, city to city, state to state, any effort to track her needs coordination at all levels. In other words, between police stations and, in turn, between states. Such a mechanism just doesn’t exist. This was exactly what the Supreme Court had called for. But more of that later.
Nothing captures the apathy to the problem better than the fact that nobody in the Government even knows how large the problem is.
Yes, there are figures with the police — some states don’t even have that — but these, officials themselves admit, barely tell the story.
Consider the following:
• The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), the nation’s central crime research organization, tabulates only cases of kidnapped children which it puts at 3196 for the year 2005. Its website posts a list and pictures of 198 cases of missing persons, of which the number of children below 18 is only 66. Given that Nithari alone yielded a figure of at least 30 missing children, this shows how way off the NCRB data is.
• So it’s not a surprise that even Minister of Child and Women Welfare Renuka Chowdhary rubbishes these figures. “My feedback is that the figure of missing children runs into tens of thousands each year. I have asked all state governments to supply figures.” What she doesn’t say is that she gave them two weeks but not one state has replied. What she underlines, however, is the alarm: “I am apprehensive that another Nithari will happen if something is not done urgently.”
• Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation Vijay Shankar says that Nithari, for all its shocking revelations, isn’t much of a surprise. “It’s only a symptom,” says Shankar, who is supervising a team of 60 officers probing the case. “Nithari shows the larger malaise and a failure of the system to respond. There has been a serious failure on every count. Nithari happened because the police failed at the first point of delivery of justice, the administration failed with a just response thereafter and because society as a whole proved to be insensitive.’’
Perhaps, the most reliable estimate of the problem can be gleaned from a 700-page report on trafficking of women and children in India prepared in 2005 by P M Nair, a former CBI officer, who is now with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and sponsored by NHRC.
As the key investigator for the project, Nair says he did precisely what Chowdhary is trying to do now. All state governments and Union territories, except Bihar, Jharkhand, Punjab and Sikkim, supplied figures of missing children between 1996 and 2001.
The figures show a gradual upswing in the number of missing children in several states, led by Maharashtra (yearly average: 13,881), followed by Delhi (6,227) and Madhya Pradesh (4,915).
The average number of children declared “missing” annually in the country was calculated at 44,476 — 122 each day — which included an annual average of 15,407 missing children from the six metropolitan cities. Of this, an average of 11,008 children remained missing. “Where these children are is a serious question to consider,” the study said and pointed out that among metropolitan cities, only Chennai had a good track record for tracing its missing children.
“Many of these untraced children end up either being trafficked or for prostitution which is a huge law enforcement and social problem. Unfortunately, there is no synergy between what the Government agencies and NGOs do to tackle the problem,’’ says Nair. His report draws disturbing linkages between missing children and trafficking and lists several case studies to illustrate this.
“Even if they (the parents) report to the police,” the report says, “the police station treats it as a case of a child going missing. By and large, the police view in such cases is that it is the child who has run away or managed to disappear and they tend to pass the blame on to the child…Since (the evidence) showed that a large number of children who are reported missing are trafficked and thereafter, are being subjected to different types of exploitation, there is an urgent need to combat the problem.”
That’s what the Supreme Court had done in the Poonam Lal case when her father and Pushpa Devi’s husband Hori Lal knocked on its doors in 1988 for help in tracing his 17-year-old daughter.
Since the police failed to trace Poonam and the Central Government did not come up with firm proposals, a set of guidelines were eventually framed by the judges themselves. These include: mandatory publishing of the picture of the missing child in newspapers, on television, in public places like railway stations and inter-state bus stops; making inquiries from a long list of people and announcing rewards for tracing the child.
But more importantly, the Supreme Court issued directives to all state Chief Secretaries and police chiefs to set up a multi-task force to trace missing children in all states.
It’s been five years since that order and now the Minister is waiting for the states to respond.