These children are missed

Those 53 days, when Sushmi was missing, were like 53 long years. — Photo: T.L. Prabhakar

Those 53 days, when Sushmi was missing, were like 53 long years. — Photo: T.L. Prabhakar  

Every year, hundreds of children become faces in police records, painful memories for their loved ones. The Bangalore statistics of missing children may not be as alarming as those of Chennai or Mumbai, but we need to be cautious, says CHARUMATHI SUPRAJA.

THESE CHILDREN were the apple of someone's eye. Their laughter lit up a home somewhere. Now they're missing. Gone. From the dining table, from behind amma's pallu, the cricket ground near the house, where their screams of triumph cannot be heard now.

The grim category of missing children includes those who may have been kidnapped, got lost or run away. Makkala Sahaya Vani (MSV) the children's helpline that works in tandem with the Police Control Room, has registered 1,072 cases of missing children from 1999, of which just about 80 have been traced. Police records indicate a higher annual figure - almost a thousand each for girls and boys - for those above15. Of these, about 50 to 60 per cent are traced. The rest are just faces on the records.

Six-year-old Nikith, whose mother died three years ago, wanted money from his father, an auto driver. He chased his father's auto as he was leaving for work. "Get the money from grandma," his father called out before he revved up. What the father didn't notice was Nikhith following the auto. That was the last anyone saw of him.

"In cases where the children have left of their own accord, it is very difficult to trace them," say police authorities. "The families never give us the full picture or tell us about the fights or the mental problems, or even the state of the child the day he left home," says DCP (Crime) Ravindra Prasad. When such a case is reported, a Sub-Inspector is put on the initial investigation. If there is indication from the complainant that the child was last seen with a particular person or was under the influence of someone, it becomes easier to find him. A crime duty constable is put on follow up duty, and if the case yields no clues for six months, under the discretion of the investigating officer, it is closed. And the child becomes just a statistic.

ACP Sharif has a revealing story here: "A lady from Mysore came to me recently. She has been searching for her son for the last six years. She got some information that the 18-year-old was working in a hotel in Srirampuram in Bangalore. When she reached there, she found he had just quit as the employer had refused to increase his pay. Distraught, she sought our help . . There are so many hotels which employ such boys. Where can we start looking for him?" When do children decide to leave the relatively safe confines of their home? When their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and love are not met. When they are being sexually abused (especially girls) by someone in the family (they would either be too ashamed or afraid to talk about it or would have tried in vain to communicate the horror to their parents). When things get too oppressive and they want to "teach their parents a lesson". When they are unable to meet high parental expectations, especially in exams. When they are mentally challenged. When they are under the influence of an unscrupulous adult who exploits or sells them. Or when they fall in love and believe that their lover is going to support them or marry them.

"Most of the children who run away are confident of getting a job, they never want to beg," says Brinda Adige, a social worker with MSV. It is the trouble they get into while working that leads them to helplines, she points out. "Some 90 per cent of girls who run away are trying to escape sexual abuse. What they don't realise is the greater danger they are putting themselves in."

Ms. Adige illustrates her point with an example: two siblings, 13 and 14 years old, were recently rescued from ill-treatment in a house in Bangalore, where they were domestic helps. They were from a small town in Tamil Nadu and their school clerk had raped one of them and abused the other. Unable to go home and face their parents, they had caught a bus to Chennai. To escape the suspicion they were bound to encounter in conservative Chennai, they caught another bus to Bangalore, only to be subjected to heartless treatment by the family that employed them as maids. The girls' shattered parents have taken their daughters back home and a criminal investigation is on .

There are cases where the children simply do not want to go back. They also refuse medical examination. Ms. Adige feels that their decision has to be accepted as per law. In many cases, the runaways are too young to know where they come from. While police stations across the country are wired for matching missing complaints, these children are handed over to appropriate institutions or shelters and taught some income-generating skills.

Kidnapping cases are relatively rare in Bangalore and are handled by special police teams. "We get only one or two every two years," says DCP Ravindra Prasad. The last case that made headlines and which had the police stumped was that of six-year-old Sushmi Zachariah. This child from a middle-class family was handing out flowers at her cousin's wedding reception when she was befriended by a gate-crasher, Cecilia, an orphan. It later turned out that she was of an unstable mind. Cecilia initially tried to sweet-talk Sushmi and even walked up to her father and struck up a conversation with him, in order to earn the little girl's trust. Later, she asked Sushmi to accompany her to garland an elephant and took her away in an auto. Sushmi's family's two-month-old nightmare began when the other children at the wedding noticed her absence. They filed an FIR and all the men in the family scoured the City day and night for weeks, searching for the child. No clues, said the police. For 53 hellish days, the family jumped at every phone call, crossed their fingers when they went to identify six-year-old female corpses or accident victims.

Until one day, Cecilia deposited Sushmi in an orphanage in Shivajinagar. All the while, the child, and later the orphanage, had been made to believe her parents were dead and the family did not want her back. One day, she saw a search poster with her photo and details. She then sobbed for her parents in her native Malayalam to a nun at the Abalashram, who called her family. Cecilia was apprehended when she came to visit Sushmi the following day. The police claim that trafficking of girls and maiming them for forced beggary are not very common in Bangalore. But MSV's Brinda doesn't agree. "Recently, six inmates from Karnataka were found in a raid on a brothel," she says. Trafficking is an elusive, but a steady process. Among the missing cases MSV has dealt with, 39 per cent have been found to be forced or lured into sex trade, she says. Sunil Kalevar, Regional Manager, Globe Detective Agency, speaks of a case where a 16-year-old girl was found after one-and-a-half years in a brothel in Bangalore.

"Her poor father, who could hardly afford us, came in desperation after the police had given up. He just wanted his daughter back." The girl had run away with the local cable operator who later sold her to a brothel. "She had been sold and resold many times before we traced her in a brothel in the City," says Mr. Kalevar. Typically, she was ashamed to go back home. "Once you get into this world, the pimps and madams won't allow even a shadow to escape," says Mr. Kalekar.

The former Police Commissioner, H.T. Sangliana, reacts: "If anyone has reason to believe that such practices are rampant in the City, it is their bounden duty to alert us so that we can close in on them." He agrees that trafficking has spread its net all through the country, and Bangalore is very much on the map. Bangalore's statistics on missing children is only a fraction of what it is in Mumbai and Delhi. This gives on the feeling that it is safer to be in Bangalore, at least relatively.

Mr. Sangliana has some suggestions for parents: Love and care for your children unconditionally, understand their dreams and needs. Educate them on the big bad world even if that means some awkward discussions. Tell them it maybe worse in the unknown outside world. Maybe read to them about children who were found or are still missing. Tell them never to accept gifts or lifts. Tell them to raise a hue and cry if someone tries to take them for a ride.

Encourage them to confide in you. Teach the younger ones their personal identification details. If you see a child who is lost or abandoned, or a child who seems to be in company that's strange to him, or in unusual circumstances, call the children's helpline, Makkala Sahaya Vani (MSV) at 1098 or the Poilce Control Room on100.

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