Low crime rate in hill state yet kids disappear

Until Nithari was discovered, Himachal police had no regular data or team to trace missing children; now they maintain separate entries

Indian Express

SHIMLA, FEBRUARY 13 : • Ashish, 14, left home one February morning two years ago. The Class 8 student at the local Wood-Stone High School had just Rs 310 on him. He is not back yet. Carrying his son’s photograph, Aman Kumar, 44, has travelled to every corner of Himachal Pradesh, looking for the teenager.

But he hasn’t given up. “I must know where he is.” What he says he has given up on is any hope of help from the police. “The police haven’t called me even once after I filed a complaint two days after Bagga disappeared.”

• A 13-yr old girl went missing on January 8 last year from her village in Mandi. Her parents did not go to the police but looked for her in the area. They did this for 11 days. Just when the father, a farmer, was beginning to think that she may have eloped, he got a distress call from her in Manali. The police then rescued her from a hotel, where “she was subjected to sexual abuse”, says Chander Shekhar, SP of Mandi. The police later found that the girl was lured by her own aunt, who promised to marry her off to a Delhi boy, only to push her into prostitution.

Certain parts of Himachal Pradesh are perhaps as poor as any other in the country, but crime rate is low and there are never any reports of children being abandoned or sold by parents. Even so, 350-450 children are reported missing every year, according to data recently compiled by the police.

Since 2002, over 1,545 children have been missing. But till recently, there was no proper system to monitor missing children in police stations and at the district level. Post-Nithari, however, police stations in the state have been told to maintain separate registers of missing children, besides daily diaries.

“There was no system… being short-staffed, we had not set up special squads to trace missing children,” admitted I D Bhandari, the state’s Inspector-General of Police (CID). “The new procedure will help evolve a system of monitoring and investigating cases.”

The missing cells at state and district levels will be primarily handled by women police officers, said DGP Ashwani Kumar.

But that’s for future. For now, the police say they haven’t seen any set pattern in the disappearances and give the usual reasons — lack of interest in studies or unhappiness with life at home leading to children running away.

They say there are no cases of parents selling children, child sacrifice, gangs picking up minors for abuse or begging.

The odd kidnappings usually involve migrants from Bihar and Nepal, said Kumar.

But Solan, an industrial hub, seems to have a problem. It has shown an increase in the number of disappearances, from three in 2001 to 11 in 2006. In all, 51 children disappeared during the five-year period.

Gulshan, the 14-year-old son of a chowkidar from Nalagarh, went missing in March last year. After three months, he was traced to Ludhiana. He was working in a cycle factory.

Similarly, Anil Kumar, 13, who ran away last August, was found a fortnight later. He too was working in a factory.

One major cause for concern, say police, is adolescents running away to take up jobs at dhabas or factories in order to support their drug habit. They say only 2-5 per cent of the missing are below 10.

Then there are girls who land in prostitution rackets, lured away with the promise of jobs or careers in films or modelling. “Acquaintances promised us a chance in films. I was not happy with life here and the lack of opportunities. So I went to seek fame,” One of the three girls who ran away together a decade back told The Indian Express.

“But soon I realized it was a mad act. If we had not returned, we would have been pushed into hell.”

Says O P Monga, a professor of sociology at Himachal Pradesh University, “Outside gangs running prostitution rackets have an eye on Himachali boys and girls, mainly adolescents. A few escape the trap, many are pushed into the trade.” Boys running away from the homes are mainly school drop-outs, or children fed up with conditions at home, say social worker here. In Gumerwin, Rakesh, 11, fled his abusive father in 1999 but returned home after four years. He worked at a dhaba in Kangra and saved nearly Rs 2,000 for the family.

The story of Sonu, part of a family from Bihar now settled at Pakloh near Dalhousie, has no such happy ending. In 2002, the 12-year-old was taken by a sadhu on Manimahesh yatra as a “helper”. Six moths later, when father Rajesh went to see his son at the sadhu’s ashram, he was told that Sonu had run away three months ago.

Rajesh is still looking for Sonu, as he ekes out a living by selling balloons and toys by the roadside.

ashwani.sharma@expressindia.com

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