ONE day in April last year, 13-year-old Savitri was walking down a road with her mother in Dataganj district, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, carrying a flask of tea to her father, a labourer at a brick kiln, when five men pulled her into a moving jeep. One of them was from their village.
After Savitri’s father was told of her abduction, he hitchhiked to the police station; he couldn’t afford to take the bus. The officers set out to look for the man who had been recognised. They couldn’t find him, but they demolished his hut. Then they put the matter aside. They didn’t file a FIR (First Information Report), which is required to open an investigation. One of the officers present that day told me in October this year that he didn’t think they could have done anything more. “Girls run away,” he said, with a shrug.
Just like that, Savitri became another statistic — actually, she didn’t even become a statistic. Missing from home and then absent on paper, the teenager is a phantom. And she is just one among very many. It is remarkably difficult to get reliable figures about how many Indian children go missing, but the scale of the problem appears to be staggering. According to the country’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, 242,938 children disappeared between 2012 and 2017. But according to TrackChild, a government database, nearly that many children — 237,040 — went missing between 2012 and 2014 alone.
Activists for children’s rights, who say that under-registration — as well as underreporting — of missing children is a chronic problem, estimate that the real numbers are much higher. According to Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer with Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood), an anti-trafficking organisation, the figure may reach 500,000 a year. Several factors account for the disappearances, but perhaps none more so than destitution. At least half of India’s minors are said to live in acute poverty. Looking for a missing child requires time, manpower and resources, and the police force in India is short on all of those.
Some police stations have no telephone, or have to provide their own car fuel. Since their performance is evaluated based on the number of cases they solve, officers have an incentive to open only those with a chance of success. And then many missing children’s cases aren’t even reported to the police. Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me recently that “parents may be reluctant to report children who ran away as a result of abuse, sexual and otherwise — which I think is rampant.” Some parents sell their children or, deliberately allow unwanted daughters to stray in busy market places.
Just one bad monsoon season can devastate farmers, pushing them toward starvation. Some poor children voluntarily approach people they think are labour contractors, offering their services in exchange for an advance, and fall prey to trafficking networks. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 3,490 cases of child trafficking registered in 2015, the most recent year for which the bureau disclosed figures. But the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, which the United States State Department releases annually, says that, “Experts estimate millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking in India.” According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, India had the largest number of slaves of any country in the world. Again, the lack of hard data about the issue is an issue in itself.
Last year the High Court in New Delhi, where the problem of missing children is especially acute, declared the subject to be of “extreme importance,” calling it “as bad as terrorism.” The court upbraided the local police for failing to recover more of the children who disappear. Of the 26,761 children who have gone missing in the city during the last five years, only 37 percent have been traced so far. State governments, the police and charities have access to TrackChild, a government database with searchable photos of children who were formally reported as missing. But between 2012 and 2014, the police filed FIRs in only 40 percent of cases. “Why are they so lifeless, so disinterested?” the Delhi court asked. As of earlier this month, Savitri’s parents had no news about her.
In recent years, public opinion has mobilised against rape, murder of journalists and suicide among farmers, demanding govt action. But not for missing children. To many Indians, Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, a social advocacy group, told me by phone from Delhi last month, it is as if these children “are not our own.” One of the stated goals of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is to “inculcate values amongst children.” It would do better instead to inculcate the value of children among Indians. — Courtesy: New York Times