#WeFailedMathewLai

What can parents do to trace a missing child, other than filing a police complaint? What if there is no ransom call and the child has not been kidnapped but just got lost? What if the desperate father approaches the media, only to be asked to place an advertisement instead? What if the family does not have the means to do this or announce a reward to the public for useful information ?

This isn’t a hypothetical scenario. This was a recent nightmarish reality for Maurice Lai, who works at IIT Madras. Except one newspaper and a local TV channel, no one cared to take up his cause. For that matter, very strangely, no one thought of pressing the social media button either. A simultaneous three-pronged strategy — a manhunt by the cops, publicity in the mainstream and local media and ‘shares’ of his picture on Facebook or retweets of the link on twitter could have made a difference. In this case, the difference was between life and death. Seventy-two hours later, the father got a call from the Railway Police asking him to bring his teenaged autistic son’s picture. And then, horror of horrors — to identify his son’s body at the ‘unclaimed section’ in the mortuary. The family believes that Mathew had strayed out of his home, landed up at a suburban railway station and fell out of a moving train.

It’s all over now. But it’s still worth raising a few questions. What has happened to our news sense and priorities? If newspapers have enough space for pictures of affluent youngsters posing merrily at parties and, in one case, even for insensitive stories such as hair bands for “bald girl babies” with expressions like “ugghh” thrown in, don’t tell me they didn’t have a few column centimetres for a missing autistic boy? I even came across a story of a bank manager in Chennai who recently promised to pay a lakh to anyone who passed on information that would help him trace his missing dog.

With almost all media houses now equipped with robust online editions, backed by a strong social media presence, can ‘space’ be an issue any longer? If the Chennai Traffic Police can have an active page on Facebook, what about the other wings of the Police across the State? Imagine, a drill of culling out pictures and information from every FIR on missing persons and posting it on police Facebook and Twitter accounts. Wouldn’t it give their search an impetus?

The social media can easily turn saviour — just like it does when it comes to spreading the word about blood donation. Just like it did few years ago when little Tamanna went missing from the Marina Beach. She was reunited with her family, thanks to a thoughtful Facebook campaign by a teenager, backed by persistent mainstream media reportage and a police search. Mathew Lai may have been alive today, had the social media stepped in. Almost everyone has a mobile camera.

If only some passenger had clicked his picture at the railway station or on the train and posted it on Facebook or Twitter! If only that update had been shared or retweeted, the way jokes and pictures are! If only the journalists who directed his father to the advertising section had hammered out a status message or tweet on the boy’s plight on their official accounts or even on their personal handles! If only a fraction of celebrity social media moguls who flaunt their ‘verified signs’, and who try to outsmart each other with hashtags in a polarised arena, use their massive following for a spot of CSR — Citizen Social Responsibility.

If only a search operation had gone viral like a film song! If wishes were updates, a special child would be playing with his favourite bat and ball and not be just a photograph in a Chennai home. RIP, Mathew Lai. We failed you. And forgive us; for we know what we didn’t do.

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