Johnson T A
Posted online: Wednesday, March 07, 2007 at 0000 hrs
Bangalore, March 6: • If she had taken ill before my eyes it would still have been okay. Even if she had died before my eyes it would not have hurt so much. Now, I don’t know what my little daughter is going through. She must be helpless,” says 11-year-old Shilpa Dasarath’s mother, Bharati. On the afternoon of November 5, 2006, Bharati sent Shilpa, the eldest of her three children, to the main road in the lower middle class locality of Udayanagar, on the outskirts of Bangalore, to check out if the local barber shop was open. Shilpa never returned from what should have been a five-minute trip. Her classmate reported that she had seen her walking away with a strange man, while a shopkeeper some distance away claimed to have seen a girl matching her description perched on a camel and crying.
• Bangalore-based autorickshaw driver Suresh and his wife Savita have been searching for their younger son Abhishek since December 10, 2006. The five-year-old child went missing from a locality on the outskirts of Bangalore. With no money to put up even an advertisement, Suresh and his wife have been combing the city streets hoping to find their kid. “I never had the money to buy my son any of the things he liked. I thought I would do it when I have the money. I hope I can at least see him again,” Suresh says.
Between January 1, 2005, and January 30, 2007, 4,568 children below the age of 18 were reported missing in Bangalore city alone. According to the data available with the Missing Persons Bureau (MPB), as many as 1,434 remain untraced to date. The total number of those reported missing in the state between January 2005 and October 2006 was 14,773, with 12,441 remaining untraced (State Crime Records Bureau data).
However, policemen in-charge of both the MPB and the SCRB admit the data is skewed. Like in the rest of the country, police register FIRs in case of missing people rather reluctantly. “When a person goes missing, there is no law saying a case has to be registered, unless a crime is involved. A large number of cases are being registered in Karnataka because it was decided many years ago that this would provide accountability in case it is later discovered that a crime was also involved,” says K Srinivasan, Additional Director General of Police, SCRB.
The role of the police, however, tends to end with the registration of FIR, and investigations are usually cursory. There is no dedicated team to investigate cases and even the MPB is currently a one-man unit engaged in data processing. “Investigation of cases of missing children requires a dedicated team, working on a daily basis. At most police stations, serious crimes and law and order issues engage the resources, so cases of missing children are pursued only if complainants are persistent,” says Alok Kumar, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Bangalore (South).
Incidentally, the highest number of missing cases come from the outlying areas of Bangalore, which have a concentration of migrant labourers, daily wage earners and factory workers. The majority of these families are poor and ill-educated and the parents rarely have the time, money or resources to pursue their cases.
Parents of both Shilpa and Abhishek say police registered a complaint only after they dug in their heels. The local police first told Shilpa’s father Dasarath that she would return after four-five days. It was only when the havaldar in the Army’s Madras Engineering Group and a former Services boxer brought some pressure on the police through a local councillor that they registered a complaint.
In the hope of finding their child, the family follows every small lead about their missing child. Over the past three months they have travelled across the state distributing pamphlets and posters of Shilpa. They have consulted psychics, astrologers, fortune-tellers and soothsayers.
“We have run out of money now. We want to sell a small piece of land we own and continue our search. There have been so many horror stories about children since Shilpa went missing. We have to find her,” says Bharati.
According to police, a majority of cases involving children relate to runaways and only occasionally to kidnapping or child trafficking (mostly from northern districts of Karnataka). “Most children who go missing are runaway kids. They come from impoverished homes where there is little care for them ,” says a police inspector at the Subramanyapura police station, which had solved 145 of the 214 missing children cases in 2005 and 2006.
“Missing children are invariably from marginalised homes, especially the smaller ones. There are also a large number of mentally unstable children. The older boys tend to be runaways,” says Nina Nayak, Chairperson of the Karnataka Child Welfare Committee.
What makes tracing of missing kids more difficult is the system itself. With multiple agencies gathering data, there is no collation, networking or a systematic reporting procedure. The State Crime Record Bureau merely classifies missing cases under the broad head “Man Missing” and has no system to break the data down on age, sex or other criterion.
“The data we provide is very crude. There is gross under-reporting of both missing cases and the case resolution. Every district does not send reports when people go missing or when they are traced,” says ADGP, State Crime Records Bureau, Srinivasan.
The two-year-old Missing Persons Bureau, using more sophisticated but privately donated software to log missing people cases, tends to provide more rigorous data on missing kids, he said. The SCRB, however, issues a crude monthly gazette for police circulation in Karnataka and the rest of the country, containing pictures and names of missing persons and unclaimed bodies.
In December 2006, R Srikumar, Director General of Police, in a report filed before the Karnataka High Court on improving the process of handling cases of missing persons recommended registration of all missing cases; a special squad to investigate them; supervision by designated senior officers; and a centralised police information network —- linked to a national grid as well, for quick, easy and all-round dissemination of information. The report also recommended empowerment of beat policemen with modern communication systems, the creation of a missing persons public web portal and setting up of facilitie s to collect forensic evidence to establish identities. “We need a system where as many eyes as possible are looking for a missing child. Every minute is important, every day is important,” says Srikumar.