The malady of missing children in many parts of the country is a terrible commentary on our collective response to the complex web of socio-economic and gender-based injustices. Organised crime, bonded labour, drug peddling, and trafficking for sexual exploitation are among the reasons for the disappearances of children. The Central and State governments have now been issued notices by the Supreme Court on a petition alleging that about 55,000 children have gone missing in the past three years. In the Capital alone, over 19,000 children have disappeared since 2009, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Most are still untraced. If this malaise seems familiar, so does the cure. The committee set up in the aftermath of the gruesome Nithari incidents recommended strengthening the separate cell within the Central Bureau of Investigation to track the whereabouts of disappeared children. The apex court has, in its recent intervention, sought to know the current status of this cell. The recommendation dates back to a 2007 National Human Rights Commission report. The NHRC has repeatedly called for greater involvement and accountability on the part of the local administration and the police in protecting vulnerable children and their families.

Crimes involving child-smuggling transcend inter-State and international borders. A central repository of data harnessing forensic science and information technology would go a long way towards breaking the nexus between crime syndicates and errant officials. But addressing the root causes of child trafficking requires a more comprehensive response. Poor access to primary education and the lack of a stimulating learning environment to sustain initial school enrolments account for the still pervasive prevalence of bonded labour, as well as for runaways. It is also worth remembering that better wages for the adult workforce have historically been one of the surest ways of stopping families from sending children to work rather than to school. Cumulatively, such measures would add up to a strong case for replacing informality in India’s workforce — over 90 per cent of which is currently outside the organised sector — and investing more in social protection policies. None of this detracts from the immediate need for psycho-social counselling services for vulnerable or affected children and families. The police and the law enforcement machinery would also need to be sensitised to this all-important human dimension. Inculcating a culture of respect for the rights of children is essential to strengthen the traditional family-oriented value system.

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