Where do the missing children of Delhi go?


Into forced farm labour in western Uttar Pradesh, finds Priyanka Dubey

Easy prey Children working in sugarcane farms in Saharanpur (UP)
Easy prey Children working in sugarcane farms in Saharanpur (UP)
Photo: Vikas Kumar

DEEPAK KUMAR was on his way back from a playground near the Tughlaqabad railway station in Delhi when he was abducted. It was the evening of 8 March 2011. He was 15 then.

“It was already dark. I was feeling cold and realised I should go back home. Just then I saw four people coming towards my direction on a bike. Before I could understand anything, they forced me on the pillion, sandwiching me between them. They covered my mouth with a thick cloth when I started crying. All I can remember is that I was on the bike. When I woke up, it was morning. The men took me to a Ram Kumar’s house in Khindaria village, Muzaffarnagar district,” Deepak recounts.

Khindaria village lies north east of Muzaffarnagar district in the sugar belt region of Uttar Pradesh. The region is covered with sugarcane plantations that flourish all year round.

The next morning, Deepak was briefed about his job at Ram Kumar’s place. He was to look after the buffaloes, clean their sheds, and peel and clean sugarcane. Meanwhile, back home in Badarpur, his parents had frantically started looking for him. His father Bhajan Sahu went to the nearest police station in Sarga Khwaja to register an FIR. “They refused to file a case saying that my son was a drug addict. Finally, after a lot of requests a case was registered but they did nothing,” says Sahu.

“Ram Kumar was a rich sugarcane farmer in the village. He put me under the watch of his caretaker, Ranjeet. It was Ranjeet who told me that there are many children like me who are brought from Delhi and Bihar and are sold by agents to these farmers for Rs 3,000-4,000. Two children used to work in the house next to Pandit Ram Kumar’s, but they would never talk to us. Whenever I tried to speak to them I was scolded,” Deepak says.

Deepak was one of the 5,111 children who went missing from the capital in 2011. Data released by the Ministry of Home Affairs suggest that an average of 14 children go missing from the capital every day, the highest in the country. Besides being forced into prostitution, begging and used for organ trade, there is a new trafficking racket that is making its way; children between the age of 14-17 are being trafficked to the agricultural fields of neighbouring states to meet labour shortage. Trafficking is more rampant in the sugar bowl of India – the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Baghpath and Meerut, in western Uttar Pradesh.

The following year, for Deepak, was filled with despair and backbreaking work in the fields. “I used to wake up at four in the morning and clean the buffalo shed. Then I had to go work in the fields,” he says. He lost the middle finger on his left hand while cutting sugarcane. “They were dangerous people,” he says, “I sliced my finger but I was still forced to work. They scolded me whenever I asked them to let me go home.”

Deepak had nearly given up on his fate. He had tried calling his parents using Ranjeet’s phone, but in vain. Then one day his owner asked him to drop Ranjeet to the railway station. After dropping Ranjeet, Deepak took the next bus to Muzaffarnagar. And then he called home, finally. “He called us from Muzaffarnagar, and told us that he was coming. After he came back, I went to the police station and requested them to investigate the matter. My son was abducted and was sold as a bonded labourer. He lost his finger too. The police hasn’t done anything until now,” Deepak’s father Bhajan Sahu says. Deepak reached home a year after he was abducted, on 26 February 2012.

Hijacked childhood (left) Deepak Kumar with his father Bhajan Sahu; (centre) Mahendra Singh with his father Ram Ratan; (right) Pawan Kumar with his family in his Badarpur home

Photos: Priyanka Dubey

A story that started as an enquiry into the reasons behind Delhi’s notoriety as the abduction capital of the country crisscrossed its way to the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh. TEHELKA visited the fields of Muzafarnagar and nearby villages, and documented the trafficking of children in the region. The conversations and the investigations that followed exposed a scattered but well networked ring of child-trafficking agents, who abduct children from poor settlements in Delhi and sell them off to sugarcane farmers in western UP and Punjab. While narrating their stories, every documented child mentions the name of their owners and villages where they were held.

Unlike Deepak, Mahendra Singh of Jahangirpuri spent three-and-a-half-years in captivity before he gathered the courage to run from his tormentors. Mahendra was fourteen when he was abducted from near his house, on 7 August 2008. He woke up as usual, at seven in the morning, and went to the nearby open ground to perform his morning ablutions.

“While I was walking towards the ground, I saw five boys approaching me. They were sniffing correction fluid. They forced me to smell some and soon I was dizzy. I remember waking up at the Old Delhi railway station,” Mahendra says.

MAHENDRA WAS taken to Karnal, in Punjab, by a Sikh man. “From Karnal we were taken to Sandgaon, where he lived. At Sandgaon, he took us first to his sugarcane fields, and then later to the buffalo shed and told me that I have to wake up at four in the morning, clean the shed and prepare fodder for the buffaloes before sunrise. I was then supposed to work in the fields all day,” he recounts.

“It was only after the morning chores that I was given the morning chai and two rotis for the day. I then had to work in the fields.” Mahendra worked in the fields with Shehnewaz, another abducted boy. “He was the one who told me that the sardar had bought me for Rs 4,000 from a local agent.”

When pressed for the sardar’s name, Mahendra mumbles, “His name was Gijja Singh, and his sister was called Preeti. His son’s name was Dilbagh Singh. They have a big house in Sandgaon surrounded by high walls on all sides, so I could never run away. They abused and beat me whenever I talked about going home. We weren’t even given enough food to eat. The sardar used to say that food would make us lazy.”

Trafficking is more rampant in the sugar bowl of India – the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Saharanpur, and Meerut

In the meantime, Mahendra’s parents left no stone unturned in their efforts to trace their son. They travelled from Delhi to Haridwar pasting ‘missing child’ posters in every nook and corner along the way, as the police in Delhi refused to register and FIR. “I ran to Jahangirpuri police station the same day my son was abducted. But the lady-in-charge asked me for mithai in return for registering the FIR. I gave her the Rs 200 I had in my pocket then, but she only made a diary entry. I was asked to look for my child myself. After making numerous rounds of the station, an FIR was finally registered, but I wasn’t given a copy,” says Ram Ratan, Mahendra’s father, who works as a daily wage labourer in a tobacco factory.

MAHENDRA AND Shehnewaz, ran from Gijja Singh’s fields on 12 May 2012. “The sardar had given us money to buy seeds for the farm. We sensed the opportunity and ran to the nearest bus stop. From there we travelled to Karnal, and then we took another bus to Delhi. I bought a basket of mangoes and kept it on my head to avoid getting spotted,” Mahendra says, “The sardar had already bought another boy, between the age of 13-14. That’s how it works in there. Rich farmers buy orphans and abducted children, and then make them work like animals in the fields.”

Like Deepak’s father, Ram Ratan too visited the police station after his son returned home. “I went and asked them to investigate my son’s case. He was abducted and made to work like a bull for four years. I even managed to put an application in writing. They told me that they would investigate the case only if I provided them with a vehicle to go to Karnal,” Ratan rues.

Mahendra and Deepak’s parents had to make numerous rounds of police stations in their respective areas before FIRs were registered. They faced police apathy even after their children returned. No investigation has been initiated into the cases. Remarkably, both the Delhi High Court and the Ministry of Home Affairs have repeatedly issued guidelines seeking detailed investigations into missing-child cases. Issuing strict investigation guidelines in the missing-child cases, the court, on 16 September 2009, observed:

1. It is mandatory for the local police to immediately register an FIR in case a child goes missing

2. Family of the child should be given legal aid by the Delhi Legal Services Authority (DLSA)

3. Whenever a missing child is traced/comes back on his/her own, the investigating officer should investigate the case














*Till 15 April 2012, Source: Ministry of Home Affairs

In 2010, the DLSA submitted a hard-hitting report to the high court against the Delhi Police for laxity in missing-child cases. The court came down heavily on the Delhi Police and repeated its observations made in 2009. The single bench of Justice Manmohan added, “By merely adhering to guidelines, the Delhi Police is not discharging their obligations, as fixed by the court, in terms of orders dated 16.09.2009.”

Of all the examples of abduction racket involving picking up of children and selling them off to sugarcane farmers, the story of 17- year-old Pawan Kumar is the most shocking. He was sold twice during the year-and-a-half that he was kept captive.

He was abducted on the morning of 2 February 2011 from Badarpur, and held captive by Preetam Singh Sharma and Sanjay Singh Sharma, who used him as a farm hand in their sugarcane plantation in Meerut. “I had to peel and clean sugarcane in their house for eight months,” Pawan says.

Although Pawan managed to escape from the Sharmas, a group of traffickers at the Meerut railway station caught him, while he was on his way back to Delhi. “There were two other boys with the men at the station,” he says, “We were taken to Fatehpur Chak, where we worked in the fields of Vikram Singh Daroga. His house is near the yellow water tank in the village.”

Pawan worked in Fatehpur Chak for five months. He claims that, like Deepak, he too saw many other children in and around neighbouring villages of Boodhpur and Ibrahimpur Manjra. “If a child tries to run away, they set the dogs on him. There is no escape. Everyone’s looking for boys in these villages,” he says.

Pawan got the opportunity to call his father from a local telephone booth a year after his ordeal began. “He asked us to come near the government school in Ibrahimpur Manjra village. I wanted to confront Daroga, but Pawan told us they are dangerous people. So we quietly went to the school and waited for him there. I informed the local police about Daroga and what my son had to endure, but till date nothing has been done,” says Hanuman Kumar, Pawan’s father who drives an autorickshaw for a living.

‘If a child tries to run away, they set the dogs on him. Everyone’s looking for boys in these villages,’ says Pawan Kumar

ACCORDING TO Kailash Satyarthi, head of Bachpan Bachao Andolan “such events are examples of the shortsightedness of schemes like the MNREGA, which led a big chunk of agricultural labour to shift towards welfare schemes, resulting in acute shortage. Keeping local children is always riskier as their parents can come searching so sugarcane farmers have started bringing children from Delhi.”

Ashok Chand, the Commissioner of Police (Crime) and the anti-trafficking unit head of Delhi Police, says the law will take its course. On telling him Mahendra, Deepak and Pawan’s stories, he adds, “your investigation is important. The higher police officials of the related police stations would have looked into the cases. If not, they will be given orders to do so.”

Despite strict directions from the Delhi High Court and the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Delhi Police remains lax. As a result, poor children are picked up from New Delhi’s urban slums and sold to distant sugarcane farmers. What lies ahead are years of darkness, violence and bonded labour.



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