Vikram Rautela / Sreenivas Janyala
AHMEDABAD, FEBRUARY 4: A curious nine-year-old Mukesh Vanzara ventured out of his home in Asarwa on September 6 last year to watch a religious procession. Still in his school uniform, that was the last his mother saw of him. Since then, it has been countless rounds to the Shahibaug police station for the poor and completely broken Vanzaras. The police first refused to acknowledge a complaint, then Mukesh’s Asarwa Municipal School intervened and filed one on behalf of the Vanzaras. With no word from the police, father Madanlal, who works as labourer, searched all over north Gujarat, even visited his village in Rajasthan to look for his son. Mukesh’s mother Narmada, who is a cart-puller, has, in fact, contacted so many people that she has exhausted all photographs of Mukesh. With only one photo left, the couple gets photocopies made. They want the police to put up posters of Mukesh’s photo which his school has prepared but with the police not taking any interest, Narmada’s meagre earnings of Rs 50 now go into making photocopies of the poster. She pastes it wherever she goes.
Jayanti Chauhan, 15, went missing on March 8, 2006. For his poor parents, both of whom work, it is a dilemma — if they go searching for him, the family, including Jayanti’s sister and 80-year-old grandfather, will starve. Still, they have been knocking on Vatwa police’s doors. The day Jayanti went missing, father Vishnu Chauhan went to Vatwa police to lodge a complaint. Instead of registering his complaint, Chauhan was told to wait for a “couple of days’’. A few days later, after persistent efforts by Chauhan, the police registered a complaint. Though Chauhan kept visiting the police station, he has never been informed what the police have done to trace his son. In September, 2006, a policeman came home to ask if the boy had returned. “If he returns, just inform the police station,’’ he said and went away.
Scrutiny of records shows that Gujarat’s children go missing while going or coming from school or playing near their home or in crowds at marriages or religious processions. Between 2001 and 2005, 1,054 children in the age group of 6 months to 18 years, were reported missing. Figures for 2006 are being compiled while according to police records in the past 15 years, 2,896 children have been reported missing and not found from various cities and districts of Gujarat. More than 80% go missing from urban areas.
Interviews with police officers and parents and an analysis of official records shows that while there is no clear pattern in the missing children, the following trends can be discerned:
n In south Gujarat, Surat and Valsad, children are mostly lured by peer groups. The boys are promised jobs in restaurants in Mumbai or to work as extras in films. Girls usually end up in prostitution rings. Surat district in Gujarat tops the list of missing persons — 1075 in the last 15 years. Says Surat’s former police commissioner Sudhir Sinha and now Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence): “Children missing from this area are either picked up or lured by agents with promises of jobs or a better life. But they mostly end up as child labour or bonded labour. Girls are sold off to prostitution rings. In a number of cases, the children are simply fed up of abusive parents or dismal living conditions and run away from home. Children of migrant labourers who are forced to live with 10 or 15 others in a single room are often found missing and form the largest group of missing persons. Their nearest destination again is Mumbai.’’
• From north Gujarat, missing children usually end up in cities like Ahmedabad or Vadodara where they join beggar gangs or are forced to work at roadside tea-stalls.
• In Saurashtra, the needle of suspicion points to quack doctors and tantriks. At least 16 cases have been registered between 2001 and 2006 in Rajkot, Junagadh, Surendranagar and Jamnagar where “tantriks” were involved in “lifting children.”
“We can understand where missing children from Gujarat end up by looking at the condition of children from other states who end up in Gujarat. They are into begging gangs in which five and eight-year-olds, both girls and boys, are forced to beg by their seths, ragpicker gangs, prostitution rings and human trafficking rackets,’’ says Chaya Joshi, who runs Childline, an Ahmedabad NGO, which rescues such children.
“Girls and boys as young as five are sexually abused by employers who bring them as servants. They are often brought here by agents from whom the employers buy,’’ she says. ‘’They are so young when they are brought here that they don’t remember where they belong or who their parents are,’’ she says. Childline recently rescued two girls, Rekha, 8, and Shobha, 5, who were found loitering in Ahmedabad. Rekha, who is believed to have come from Mumbai, was found to have been sexually abused. Both girls now live in a residential school near Mehsana.
Shubham, a 10-year-old boy from Nagpur, was not only forced to beg but also work as a domestic help by his employer in Rakhial area of Ahmedabad. Talking to counsellors, Shubham revealed that his employer sodomised him regularly at knife-point. After coming to know of the extent of his abuse, he was sent for a HIV test which turned out to be negative. The mere mention of his employer’s name frightens Shubham. “He used to force me to drink and inhale charas sometimes. He would threaten me with a knife at my throat and did lots of things to me,’’ Shubham says and falls silent.
While it is difficult to trace a missing child who is unable to give his or her address, the police system makes it almost impossible. It begins with no FIRs being lodged in missing complaints. Says G C Raigar, Director General of Police (Home Guards) who also holds charge of the State Missing Children Cell: “As such, a missing complaint is not a crime complaint. Missing cases are not investigated as an offence because there is no crime involved per se unless it is a confirmed case of kidnapping. Obviously, current and serious issues take precedence over missing complaints. Not even an FIR is registered and priority is very low.’’
Gujarat does have a Missing Persons Cell at Gandhinagar but it’s all of two people, a police inspector and a constable. So the cell only compiles information on missing persons collected from various district headquarters. Because of lack of personnel, the cell ends up investigating only those cases on priority which are directed by the High Court, or if instructed by Home Department, Director General of Police or the Chief Minister’s office.
Says Inspector J B Solanki, who relinquished charge of the cell last week: “With two people, it is very difficult to keep track of cases and do a satisfactory investigation. We only issue look-out notices, stick posters.”
In Ahmedabad, a five-member squad was set up two years ago under the Prevention of Crime Branch (PCB) which deals with missing persons. However, tracing missing persons is very low on its priority. “The members are mainly on VIP security duty or festival bandobast. We try to do our best but shortage of man-power is a major obstacle,’’ an official said.
However, in reality, it’s the police themselves who discourage parents from filing complaints. Take the case of nine-year-old Mukesh Vanzara. “When we went to Shahbaug police station, instead of registering the complaint immediately, police asked us to wait if my son returns on his own,’’ says Narmada Vanzara, his mother. “The police did not help us in searching the places where we thought he could be. My husband and I searched ourselves. Even today, four months later, when we go to the police station, many times they refuse to meet us.”
Says missing 15-year-old Jayanti’s grandfather Kantilal Chauhan: “When I go to the police station, the police in turn asks me if my grandson has returned. They are of no help. When I persist, they get angry and say my grandson is not the only missing case and they have better things to do.’’
Even when a proper complaint is registered, the biggest impediment is police investigation itself.
“In Gujarat, there is no system or mechanism in place by which a missing complaint filed at one police station is relayed to another even in the same city. If the complaint is registered at one police station and another police station finds the child, they are absolutely clueless about him or her. They wouldn’t have the information that a particular child is reported missing from the neighbouring police station a few kilometres away. If coordination within a city is so poor, you can imagine how difficult it is at intra-state or inter-state level’’ says ADG (Intelligence) Sudhir Sinha.
“What is probably needed is a special agency or coordination cell which exclusively deals with missing persons with a dedicated staff. That should not improve inter-state exchange of information but given timely tip-offs or notices, it will surely help in detecting a number of cases,’’ Sinha says.
The Police Manual itself does not give much importance to dealing with cases of missing persons or unidentified bodies. In Gujarat, in case of a missing complaint, not even a proper FIR is lodged. There is no system of investigating officers reporting the progress of investigation to their seniors.