India calls them its future. But as lakhs of children are kidnapped across the country each year, pushed into sex or organ trade or bonded labour, precious little is being done to find and restore them to their parents.

For these children, it is living through the worst nightmare. Getting lost in markets and seeing strange faces all around may put a child in utter agony. But for a kidnapped child, this is just the beginning of a long ordeal.

At the other end, for the parents it is an even bigger horror; not getting to see the child they were bringing up with so much affection — and the constant fear of what he or she might be undergoing among strangers.

The Supreme Court recently asked the Centre and all the State governments to state what they have been doing to trace the 55,000 children who, officially, have gone missing in the past three years. It issued notice on a petition, which alleged that these children were kidnapped for the purpose of prostitution, bonded labour, removal of vital organs such as kidneys and eyes, bootlegging and smuggling.

Incidentally, on July 18, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked the Delhi government and police to submit a report on claims that at least 50 children went missing from the Capital in the first eight days of that month.

It also asked them to inform whether the guidelines on missing children issued in August 2007 were strictly followed.

The NHRC had, in the wake of the Nithari kidnappings and murders of children in Noida, constituted a five-member committee under member P.C. Sharma, which prepared an exhaustive report on missing children.

“Callous indifference”

The idea behind the exercise was to “put an end to this callous indifference and insecurity with regard to the protection of children and to prevent more lives from being lost in similar crimes.”

In 2005, the NHRC Action Research on Trafficking stated that in any given year, on an average of 44,000 children are reported missing; and of them, as many as 11,000 remain untraced.

Nithari incident

“The revelations at Nithari exemplify that missing children may end up in a variety of places and situations — killed and buried in a neighbour’s backyard, working as cheap forced labour in illegal factories/establishments/homes, exploited as sex slaves or forced into the child porn industry, as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries, as child beggars in begging rackets, as victims of illegal adoptions or forced marriages, or perhaps worse than any of these as victims of organ trade and even grotesque cannibalism as reported at Nithari,” the report said.

The committee noted that “when a child goes missing, nobody, except the perpetrator, knows the real intent behind it.”

It noted that “even a child who has run away on purpose is also susceptible to being kidnapped, abducted, abused or assaulted, raising the question as to why reports of missing children are not treated as cognisable offence.”

NGOs’ role

While acknowledging the role of various non-governmental organisations such as Childline, India’s first 24x7 toll-free tele-helpline which operates in over 73 cities and towns; Bal Sakha in Patna; and the National Centre for Missing Children in Madhya Pradesh that runs website missingindiankids. com, the committee observed that funding was a serious issue with these organisations.

The committee recommended that the issue of “missing children” be made a “priority issue” by all stakeholders, especially the law enforcement agencies; that there be missing persons squad/desk in police stations and as per Supreme Court guidelines there be “prompt and effective steps for tracing missing children.”

Scarce resources

It noted that as per the directions of the Delhi High Court, a cell relating to missing persons/children was set up in the Central Bureau of Investigation but lamented that due to lack of adequate resources, it was not able to achieve the desired results.

“Since the CBI is a central investigating agency, having powers and jurisdiction to take up cases of inter-state and international ramifications, it would be desirable to strengthen this cell to enhance its capacity to coordinate and investigate criminal cases relating to missing children and persons,” it said.

Need for a central repository has long been felt by those working towards recovery and rehabilitation of missing children. Anuj Bhargava, a trustee of missingindiankids.com, which has been operating for over a decade from Bhopal and has helped in the recovery of six children by putting up on its website information and photographs on missing children from across the country, said: “The need of the hour is a central repository to collect, collate and analyse the data pertaining to missing children.”

Looking to technology

Mr. Bhargava, who has attended several international conferences on missing children, said in India there was need to look at technology in detail to ensure speedy recovery of missing children. DNA profiling could prove to be a handy tool in this field.

Incidentally, as per Interpol, “with the exception of identical twins, each person’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is unique, which makes DNA sampling useful for solving crimes, identifying victims of disasters and locating missing persons.”

The United States realised this about a decade-and-half ago. In 1998, it established a national DNA database known as the National DNA Index System. This system now has over 11 million searchable profiles and has aided close to 1,70,000 investigations.

As per the Federal Bureau of Investigation, DNA databases have been particularly helpful to investigations that have been on for a long time and were no longer providing new leads.

The FBI has also been sharing its Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) technology with law enforcement agencies in other countries.

This system, as per the agency, blends forensic science and computer technology into an effective tool for solving violent crimes by allowing laboratories to store, compare, and match DNA records from offenders, crime scene evidence, unidentified human remains, and relatives of missing persons.

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