Shehzadi Malik has watched the seven-minute video clip on her phone a few hundred times these past three months. Sometimes she is looking for clues. Sometimes she is just watching it, empty of hope. Sometimes she is simply looking at her nine-year-old boy, Kabir. This CCTV footage was given to Malik by the police, on a pen drive, and it’s the last record she has of her son, who went missing on May 11 this year.
In the video, at 2.25 p.m. that day, Kabir enters the frame; he is walking back from tuitions in Delhi’s Nizamuddin colony — as he has done for two years — carrying a big red-and-black schoolbag on his back. His gait is jaunty but he seems to be in no particular hurry; at one point he appears to mock-bowl with his left hand, at another he stops to pick up something from the pavement, maybe a coin or a pebble. He doesn’t exit the frame, he gets obscured by a row of Ashoka trees, then the video ends. “Can you see him standing behind the tree?” Malik asks, pointing to a corner of the phone screen where a portion of his black trousers is just about visible through the foliage. “ Maybe he is waiting for someone, or talking to someone. He is a friendly child, he spoke to everyone in the area,” she says, the possibilities clearly confounding her.
From under a mattress in her single-room home in Sarai Kale Khan village, a few kilometres from where the boy was last seen, Malik a domestic help, pulls out a wad of posters with information about the missing child, and a copy of the FIR. The police helped initially, pasting posters of the boy around the colony, and told her they have looked for him in hospitals, children’s shelters, even in stormwater drains.
“The police say they’re still looking, but I am not sure what they’ve done after the initial search. They keep asking if we have enemies who might have taken the child.” With no headway made by the police, Malik’s husband Aamin, a mechanic, has taken it upon himself to go door to door with the posters. He has distributed them around the neighbourhood and beyond, in Gurugram, Ghaziabad and Noida, and on the instruction of astrologers, even travelled as far as Aligarh and Mathura looking for his son in orphanages. He hasn’t found answers, but continues his search, however far it may take him, if for nothing else, then “ bas dil ki tasalli ke liye (at least for my peace of mind),” he says.
Helping neither the investigation nor Aamin’s peace of mind is a WhatsApp forward that has landed on his phone featuring a purported ‘child lifter’. In the video — a professionally directed one with fades and percussion to boot — a woman in dark glasses physically carries away children from bus stops and sidewalks after rendering them unconscious with drugged toffees or chloroform.
We may never know Kabir’s story. But for now, he is part of a staggering statistic of missing children in India: 63,407 children went missing in 2016, according to the latest data from National Crime Records Bureau, which translates to an average of 174 every day. More disquietingly, 50% of the children who have gone missing until 2016 have stayed untraced.
But the stories behind the statistics are complex, sometimes counterintuitive, and vastly different from what ‘child lifting’ rumours on social media will have us believe about ‘gangs with weapons’ or ‘travelling vagrants’. It can be a 14-year-old who runs away with a ‘friend’ only to realise she’s actually been trafficked. Or it could be a 17-year-old girl who elopes with her lover, and her family back home reports her as ‘kidnapped’. It could be a neighbour promising a job for a young boy but instead enslaving him in a factory; or a kid who runs away from an abusive father; and sometimes, it could just be a star-struck girl boarding a train to see her favourite actor in a big city and getting lost there.
Salim*, 12, was abducted by his neighbour in Raghunathpur village in Bihar’s Katihar district. In May 2016, the boy left with a man who had promised his parents that he would educate and employ Salim in his jewellery workshop in Old Delhi. Salim’s father Basheer, who works as a mason in Gurugram, realised a few days later that he had lost all trace of Salim and their neighbour, and that’s when he decided it was time to file a police complaint. He gave the police details of the suspect: his name, where he worked. When word got around, his neighbour’s family offered Basheer money to withdraw the case, but he refused. “We just wanted our boy back,” he says. Months later, the police had made no progress. “In fact, they even asked us to take the money and withdraw the case,” says Basheer. So the mason took off from work to go to Delhi and scour the city for clues.
It took the police a year and a half, with some nudging from Delhi-based child rights NGO, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), who Basheer approached, to locate Salim. That year, BBA and the police conducted a rescue operation in Old Delhi and found 16 child labourers in small workshops, including one that belonged to Basheer’s neighbour. Salim was not among them. A massive search operation followed; his photograph and details were shared with child care institutions and Child Welfare Committees across 20 States. Finally, in March this year, Salim was traced to a dargah in Haridwar.
He is now back home with his parents, but continues to be deeply traumatised by the experience. He hasn’t been able to say how he reached Haridwar or what transpired at the factory except that he saw other children being beaten. The day we spoke to Basheer, his wife had taken their son to see a psychologist. “Salim doesn’t talk to us much any more,” says Basheer.
Salim was fortunate to have been rescued at all . “The longer the police takes to investigate, the less likely the child will ever be found. Trafficking is a structured nexus where the child changes hands, travels between States,” says Soha Moitra, director (northern region), Child Rights and You.
Despite a 2013 Supreme Court order that mandates that the police register an FIR of kidnapping when they receive a missing child complaint, “there is still huge hesitation on the part of the police,” says Moitra. “Missing children cases are often dismissed, families are told they have ‘run away’ and ‘will come back’. Precious time is wasted; the child could well be out of the State before investigation begins.”
When Meghana, 14, was rescued after eight months, she was already 22 weeks pregnant. It took a call from her, with a mobile phone she managed to lay her hands on, for the police to track her down to Chandpur in Uttar Pradesh. Meghana belongs to Kalyan in Maharashtra. She had been abducted by a 23-year-old, a regular customer at the eatery her father worked in. They used to chat and within days of their meeting, he had convinced her to come away with him. It isn’t clear if he had promised marriage. “He said he would enrol me in a good school,” says Meghana.
She boarded a train with the man last July, and that was the beginning of her nightmare. The man imprisoned her in a house he shared with his extended family. “He hit me and raped me every day. He wouldn’t let me leave the house,” says Meghana. Meanwhile, her parents had filed a missing child complaint. They even told the police they suspected this man, but there was no headway. Fortunately, Meghna managed to get hold of a phone and dialled her aunt’s number. “I told her everything and she said she would let my parents know.” Meghana was rescued in March this year with the help of BBA. Her baby was later born premature and didn’t survive. Now, Meghana and her family are trying to look ahead. “All I want is to go to school,” she says.
Girls between 12 and 18 account for 66% of the 54,328 children reported as kidnapped in 2016. But with one caveat. “A lot of romantic relationships are reported as kidnapping by parents who don’t approve of the relationship,” says Bharti Ali, co-founder of Haq, a Delhi-based NGO working for towards child rights. She studied 1,957 cases in Delhi and Mumbai under the POCSO Act, and found a significant number involved consensual sexual relationships. “Courts in such cases tend to acquit the accused on charges of rape, but convict them for kidnapping. Such cases add up to the large number of kidnapping records that we come across.”
Indeed, not all children in the ‘missing’ database have been trafficked.
Mathivanan was 16 when he ran away from home to escape his dysfunctional family in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. His mother had died, his father was a drunk, and he didn’t have a good relationship with his stepmother. “My parents argued bitterly about money and my father’s alcoholism. I didn’t want to live with them. I thought I’d run away and get a job somewhere far away,” says Mathivanan, now 19.
He was found wandering at Villupuram railway station by volunteers of an NGO, Scope India. When he told them he didn’t want to return home, they persuaded him to move into a children’s shelter. The NGO reached out to his siblings and family, and after much counselling, Mathivanan has now returned home.
Every five minutes, a child lands up unaccompanied on the country’s railway platforms, according to data from Railway Children, an international organisation working with street children. Many of these ‘missing children’ have run away to escape abuse at home or corporal punishment in school or sometimes to head off to a big city to ‘become a film actor’, says the Railway Children India report published last month.
“We once found a young girl who had travelled 500 km from Theni to Chennai to meet her idol, the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa,” says Sheila Charles Mohan, member of the Child Welfare Committee in Chennai. Then there are children who go missing ‘seasonally’, for instance, during exam time or on the day results are announced, she says.
With 50% of missing children remaining untraced, Moitra believes there needs to be greater coordination between child welfare bodies and the police. Ali calls for police reform, capacity building and trained human resources to crack these cases. “Tracking mobile phones from which a child has called, mapping vulnerable areas, all this could help in investigation and prevention,” she says.
A senior officer with the Delhi Police, however, contests the 50% figure. “Families often don’t report back to the police when a child has been found,” he says. Delhi was one of the first to begin filing FIRs for missing children and to use a facial recognition system (FRS) to identify them, he says. The majority of cases involve children who have run away on their own, the officer believes, and trafficking constitutes no more than “2 or 3%” of the cases.
Inspector A.S. Thahira is in the middle of a rescue and reunion operation when we meet her at her office at the State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) in Chennai. Thahira is on the phone, speaking in Hindi to a man from Bihar, who has landed in the city to take back his 16-year-old sister-in-law who ran away from home.
After reuniting several missing adults with their families in the past two years, the SCRB, led by Seema Agrawal, Additional-Director General of Police, has now taken on missing children cases too. The State is in the process of acquiring FRS software to speed up investigations, says Agrawal. In April, the Delhi police was able to trace nearly 3,000 missing children by running FRS on an experimental basis on photographs of children in government homes that were uploaded on TrackChild, an online database of missing children created by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
This technology could help speed up the process of tracking missing children, says Thahira. “Without FRS, all we have are photographs of thousands of missing children, and it can take days, even months, to trawl through the portal’s database and cross-reference each photograph against pictures of children in government homes and shelters.”
Salim, Meghana and Mathivanan are just three who have luckily made it back home. Salim is receiving counselling, Meghana is applying to schools, and Mathivanan has decided he will stay home for his younger brother and sister.
Kabir, like the remaining 50%, stays untraced. He appears, however, in the photo gallery of TrackChild, along with hundreds of missing girls and boys whose fates remain unknown.
(*Some names changed to protect privacy.)