Sheela Devi is a mother of two children, or at least she was, until one evening four years ago when her 9-year-old son Bittu went missing. Bittu was playing cricket just outside his home in Delhi's Sangam Vihar.
Bittu is only one of a devastatingly high number of children that go missing every year in India. According to RTI applications filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a child rights NGO, the number of kids who went missing between 2008 and 2010 in 392 districts of the country were a whopping 1,17,480. More than a third of these are never heard of again, while a small percentage gets to go home. On an average, six children go missing in Delhi each day. Their families suffer endlessly, running from pillar to post, looking for forgotten faces as they slowly disappear from this country's narrative without a trace.
Though a bright student in general, Devi proudly remembers how Bittu always did particularly well in English. Devi's dream to see Bittu become a doctor, though, has turned into a dream to see him come home again.Devi sits, obsessively staring at her phone, as if she's waiting to hear Bittu's voice on the other end. "In case I do ever miss a call, I immediately call back," she says. The likelihood of her son calling might be diminishing every minute, but Devi's faith that he will find his way back certainly isn't. "He was very mature for his age," she adds fondly. She strongly believes in fate. "It has separated us and it will reunite us one day," she declares. She doesn't leave the phone unattended for a single minute, and her face light up every time she gets a blank call. Her enthusiasm, unfortunately, is mostly only greeted by agonising silence.
She is convinced that Bittu's calling just to hear her voice, that her son is trying to reach her. "Who else will call like this? I think he is too scared to speak, afraid that he might be caught by his kidnappers."
Reporting Bittu's absence to the police hasn't yielded a very encouraging response for the family. More often than not, they blame her. She's heard all their reproachful comments one too many times, including things like: "It's the parent's fault he went missing. You should have been careful."
According to Devi, when her husband, who paints houses for a living, tried to reason with the police once, they turned around and threatened to charge him with false cases. She intervened only to hear that "Husband se to tez biwi hai (Wife is smarter than her husband)."
Running from pillar to post for four year has gotten Devi nothing. She carries around a piece of paper with names of all the "big guys" she has visited over the years, with kismat as her last hope. She is, however, convinced of the inadequacy of the state's machinery in such matters, certain that no one has done anything to find her son.
Sobran Singh, another resident of Devi's colony, won't forget the Janmashthami day when his four-year-old son Prem vanished from the staircase to their home. "I've spent my entire life's savings — the 1.5 lakhs I had kept aside for my 19-year old daughter's wedding — in search of Prem," Singh says. At the end of his tether, Singh consulted astrologers who duped him of the precious little he had left with fake information of Prem's whereabouts.
Sobran's grievances are similar to Devi's. "The police tell me to inform them when I find my son." Befuddled, he asks, "What is the police for if I'm left to find my son on my own?"
Rakesh Senger of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan cities an example in which lack of tracking mechanism deprived a parent of their kidnapped child, when the kidnapper died after negotiating the ransom amount, leaving the whereabouts of the child unknown. The child is still missing, even though details of the kidnappers have been shared with the police.
In the absence of a singular source of data, it is difficult to collate the exact number of missing children in the country. The gap between the data provided by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and RTI applications is appalling. When contrasted with the RTI numbers, the the NCRB record of 13,554 instances of disappeances falls abysmally short of the truth.
Senger points that cases of missing kids show an unusually high pattern in certain areas. Authorities take notice only when cases like Nithari come to light. "Even in the Nithari case, we warned authorities well in advance, but to no avail," he points out.With lack of proper tracking mechanisms, parents like Devi rely mostly on unsubstantiated information. Devi often rushes to different places on hearing rumours of a boy who resembles her son being spotted in the area. Last November, on a similar tip-off, she rushed to Haridwar, only to be disappointed. She did the only thing she could — stick posters of his picture wherever she went.
"I saw posters by police in Kailash Colony, one of the better-off colonies in Delhi, declaring a reward of Rs 5,000 to whoever finds a lost pet dog." She adds, her voice shaking with anger. "Rich people's pets have reward for those who find them. Had I been equally well off, my son would have been traced too."