Stavan Desai / Sagnik Chowdhury / Smita Nair
Indian Express February 6
MUMBAI, FEBRUARY 5: • For over three years now, the Agarwals in central Mumbai have been waiting for their son Raj. A Class IX student, he never returned from school on November 18, 2003. That same day, his mother Arti received a ransom call for Rs 5 crore. A police team camped at their home, monitored calls and Rs 5 lakh was agreed upon to trap the ‘kidnappers’. The ransom was paid but Raj never got back. Agarwal moved the Bombay High Court which issued notice to the police on March 3, 2004. The very next day, police arrested five persons who they claimed had abducted and killed Raj near Pune. Agarwal was told that some skeletal remains had been found. But DNA tests concluded that the remains were not Raj’s. Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Meeran Borwankar conducted a separate inquiry and, in a two-page report, saying the accused had been arrested and that allegations of faulty investigations were untrue. Raj remains untraced, his father still fighting in court.
• Jabeer was abducted from a mosque in Darukhana in December 2004. Two women befriended his mother, distracted her and ran away with the child. The police closed the case after making two rounds of the mosque and taking the parents to the police remand home for kids. The sketch of a woman was circulated but Jabeer Sheikh remains a ‘missing minor’ entry in the Sewree police register.
Maximum city Mumbai is also number one when it comes to missing children. In 2006 alone, Mumbai’s missing minor registers recorded 948 children as untraced. According to the Missing Persons Bureau of the Mumbai Police, over 2,307 children have remained untraced in the last three years. Since 2002, more than 650 children, on an average, remain untraced each year.
“If you ask me honestly, missing children and kidnapped children are not really looked at seriously. There isn’t a set pattern that has been observed here. But yes, child trafficking has gone up, including sex trade. Mumbai, therefore, becomes a hub as it has a large red-light area,” says IGP (Nashik range) P K Jain.
Nilima Mehta, former chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee, says there are three major areas of concern: “Child labour, flesh trade, trafficking of children for other activities abroad.” The city’s beggar mafia itself, say child welfare activists, is another menace with children absorbed “through abduction from the city or the outskirts” for begging, especially during festivals.
But Mumbai Police commissioner A N Roy doesn’t think the situation is very alarming: “Children go missing in every city and I am not concerned about the number of cases.
A large number of missing complaints are registered every year, but most cases are detected and children are returned home. Being such a large city, a high number of cases is only to be expected.”
What Roy doesn’t say is that Mumbai has been partly responsible for India being placed in Tier 2 of the human trafficking watchlist by the US Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons — “The result of its failure to demonstrate increased Central government law enforcement response to India’s huge trafficking problem and inadequate local prosecutions in Mumbai and Calcutta.”
Those working on the ground are not surprised. Preeti Patkar, working with Prerna which is involved in rescue and rehabilitation of women and children, says “Mumbai today forms the source, transit and destination for missing children.” According to Patkar, majority flesh trade cases involve those in the age group 14 to 16 and the children are either sent to Mumbai or “are taken to Mumbai for a halt before being sent to the Gulf.”
Naval Bajaj, former DCP (Zone I), says: “It’s always difficult to detect girls being taken abroad because prima-facie they are accompanied by a relative or friend. They are also shown as going for jobs there. So it becomes difficult to stop them legally.”
Vikas Sawant of Pratham, an NGO looking into the begging network in the city, says: “Most children come from the northern states.” Pratham coordinator Kishore Bhamre points out that “it is difficult to bust the beggar mafia because they are always mobile”.
Despite laws in place, child labour is still rampant. “Barely one or two per cent of the children are from Maharashtra. Most here are from Bihar, UP and Delhi,” says Sawant.
Social workers say while poverty forces many parents to make their children work, at least 40 per cent are those who went missing or fled home. Vaishali Canisius, anti-trafficking in-charge from Save our Sisters, says Mumbai has become a destination point for trafficking within the country as also girls from Nepal and Bangladesh.
According to Patkar, flesh trade has seen a change in recent years. “Earlier, one had Kamathipura and South Mumbai as the red-light areas where a missing or abducted girl would eventually end. Today, they are distributed in a city which now has massage parlours, friendship clubs and a huge porn industry.”
Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Meeran Borwankar says “most children who remain untraced hail from a low socio-economic strata. The two main angles probed by the police in these cases are child trafficking and the begging racket. While trafficking is normally limited to girls, boys are made to beg on the streets.”
So is it easy losing a child in Mumbai? “Not really. Most children who leave home are lured by the glamour this city has to offer. They come to Mumbai thinking they will make it big here,” says Shaila Mhatre, chairperson of Child Welfare Committee. It is when they reach the city, in trains and buses, that children are pushed into all kinds of illegal trade.
Bhamre says not all is lost. He cites the case of 10-year-old Balaji who was found by GRP constables at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The child couldn’t board the train to Aurangabad while his uncle did. Balaji boarded another train and reached Mumbai. “Patrolling agencies like the GRP look for children wandering aimlessly at railway stations. He was brought to the shelter.” If such agencies, says Bhamre, were functional at bus depots too, many children can be saved.
In July 2006, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had formed a state level committee to combat trafficking in women and children. As part of the “Make Maharashtra a safe state” agenda, work was to begin in seven districts — Sangli, Beed, Latur, Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and Osmanabad, high on the trafficking list. Deshmukh promised strict vigilance and rehabilitation measures. Six months later, the draft plan has been approved but is still awaiting implementation.
Just how high on the priority list are missing children? Mumbai Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Arup Patnaik says “It’s a matter of fixing priorities. While we do investigate missing cases at local police stations, our main task is to maintain order in the city, check serious crimes.”
(With Ashutosh Patil, Smita Nair)