Anna Hazare’s third innings at Jantar Mantar and a 4,000-strong crowd—what could have been a better occasion for TV cameras and OB vans to flock around at the familiar protest site. Once the high-profile politicians and Team Anna members leave, the cheering gathering disperses and the tea stalls close down, Suman Devi is left alone on the sidewalks invisible to cameras and the public’s attention. Her family started protesting at Jantar Mantar six months ago after the police refused to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) regarding her daughter’s disappearance in April.
Suman Devi’s daughter is just one of the estimated 1,500 children who went missing in Delhi between January and April. The shocking figure was revealed after Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Nav Srishti took up the gruelling task of filing Right to Information (Act) applications with every police station in every district. The initiative aimed to determine the actual number of missing children, which is more than three times the Zonal Integrated Police Network (ZIPNET) data of mere 468. “There was a huge discrepancy in the ZIPNET data,” the spokesperson of Child Rights and You, which works closely with Nav Srishti, told Tehelka. The last set of the RTI replies from the southwest and northeast districts came out in the third week of September after the police initially refused to provide the data. The police had compiled only 300 cases from the two districts in those four months (January to April).
“The Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Children and Women Development considered the issue seriously only after the replies to the RTI queries,” says Rishikant, whose NGO works against human trafficking. In a joint meeting on 21 September, the two ministries adopted resolutions to fight the dangerous trend of missing children and child trafficking. “Firstly, the term ‘missing child’ should be strictly defined,” says B Bhamati, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs. “Any child who has been untraced for 30 days should be called a ‘missing child’,” she added.
“It is an issue which needs to be tackled urgently because we are talking about the country’s future,” Vinod Kumar Tikku, senior member of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), told Tehelka. “The issue of missing children is the worst social problem right now. Most of the time, these children are trafficked ultimately becoming victims of sexual violence, physical abuse, sex trade and child marriage,” he adds.
Tikku blames the government for not providing proper facilities to raise these children. “The largest chunk of missing children in Delhi is from slums like Silampur in East Delhi.” The number of children who went missing from Silampur in the first four months is around 200. “Not providing schooling to these children is the primary reason for such cases—not to mention poverty, which makes these kids more vulnerable,” he says.
As these unfortunate parents search for their missing children, Tehelka traces some of the cases from last year. Neha (8) stays in Nangloi, west Delhi. Around 2 PM on 23 June, 2010, Kajal, who lived in the same neighbourhood, came to her house asking for water. Neha and her sister Sumaira (5) were playing outside the house within their mother Husna’s earshot. Even before Husna could return with water, she heard her younger daughter Sumaira screaming that Kajal had taken Neha away. “I’ll give you new clothes if you come with me,” this is what Kajal promised to Neha, according to Sumaira.
Husna rushed to Kajal’s house only to find it locked. When the family approached the Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) of the Nangloi Police Station, Rajaram, he asked for 65-70 photos of Neha, the cost of which alone is far more than a ‘below poverty line’ family like Husna’s can afford. Her father, an auto-rickshaw driver, was out of the city. Had it not been for their 74-year-old landlord Om Prakash stepping in to take up the expenses, Neha would have been gone forever.
On the 26 June, about 150 Nangloi residents nabbed Kajal with her mother and called the police control room emergency number 100. “Why did you call 100? Call Rajaram,” the voice at the other end retorted. Eventually, the mom-daughter duo was taken to the police station, where Kajal confessed to the crime and was locked up only to be ‘released’. However, when a shocked Husna called Rajaram, he simply said that she ran away.
Following Kajal’s ‘miraculous’ escape, Nav Srishti wrote letters to the Assistant Commissioner of Police and other authorities the next day to pressure the Nangloi Police Station. It worked: Neha returned by 8 AM on 28 June.
Interestingly, Rajaram had already inquired from one of Husna’s neighbours from an unknown number whether Neha had returned. How did he know that Neha would return? Was he in touch with Kajal? Was he responsible for Kajal ‘escape’ from jail? Despite recording of statements at Tis Hazari Court for three hours, the questions were never answered. When the Judge asked the Station House Officer if Rajaram had called Husna’s neighbour, he was clueless.
Meanwhile, Rajaram threatened Husna’s son Yasin (26) that he would be implicated in a case. Around 1.30 AM o 28 June, the ASI summoned Yasin and Husna to record their statements. However, neither Yasin nor Husna turned up at the police station. The threats keep coming along with the scheduled dates for court hearings. “The hearing keeps on getting delayed because either the SHO or the ASI does not show up,” says Shani Srivastava, Advocacy Coordinator, Nav Srishti.
Neha remembers how she was taken to Agra by train and then travelled in auto-rickshaws. She was introduced to a couple and told that they would be her new parents. There were three boys and another girl present in the house. Kajal warned Neha, “Do not mention my name; otherwise, I would be jailed.” The police haven’t bothered to check the couple’s whereabouts. But, at least, Neha returned home.
Irfan Ali (9) had been in the IV standard for only two days when he disappeared on the morning of 6 April, 2010, while on the way to school. When the school informed his parents, his father Iqbal (36) rushed to the Aman Vihar Police Station to lodge an FIR only to be told to arrange for Irfan’s photos first. When he returned to the police station with photos, which cost him Rs 400, two days later, the police again refused to lodge an FIR saying that Irfan must be at some friend or relative’s place.
When Irfan was untraceable for over a week, Iqbal landed up at the MLA’s office, where he was shooed off by a clerk who “refused to help him because he was a Muslim and aligned with Congress”. The Deputy Commissioner of Police was too busy in a meeting to meet Iqbal. Approaching Minister of State for Women and Child Development Krishna Tirath was futile as well, he says. “She said, ‘Only your child is not missing. I have to look after the whole district’,” Iqbal adds. Irfan is still missing.
Deepali’s case is no different. On 25 November, 2010, Rekha (30) was waiting at her Jahangirpuri home for her seven-year-old daughter to return from school. Suspecting something foul, Rekha rushed to the school authorities, who said that Deepali had not been spotted after half-day. The guard at the school gate was quick to shun his responsibility. “It’s not my fault if you can’t handle your child.”
After hours of searching, Rekha’s husband finally rushed to the Mahendra Park Police Station at 11 PM to lodge an FIR but was scolded, “Why do you come directly to lodge FIR? Search a little more.” Finally, an FIR was registered after eight days.
Life goes on for Rekha, who has three sons to take care of. But she still looks at the gates of the school where her sons are enrolled. “They lock the gates sometimes,” she says.
In April last year, five children disappeared within two weeks at Aman Vihar. Around 8 PM on 6 April, Varsha (7) went to the ice cream shop near her house. After giving the first one to her brother, she went out again to get some more for other family embers. According to Varsha’s father Panna Lal, she never returned. Along with Varsha, Irfan, Guriya (9) and Kajal (8) went missing within two weeks in the same month. For their parents, writing joint letters to various authorities and running from one police station to another has been futile. They even pooled in money to publish pictures of their children in local papers like the Punjab Kesari.
If the police had bothered to show concern, clues to questions like ‘How could five children disappear from the same area around the same time?’ or ‘Could there be a possible connection between the cases?’ could have been found.