For children living in the outskirts of the capital, a walk to their favourite shop or a game of hide and seek near the colony park can mean the end of childhood. Children here are picked up like rabbits by falcons.
And most children lost in the capital are never found again. Those, who do come back, often tell a story of abuse, torture, confinement and lingering trauma. It’s
probably because the number of those recovered is so abysmal that the authorities haven’t been so alarmed yet about how the families and the children cope with this second coming.
Thirteen-year-old Ritesh Sarma, for instance, was a lively kid strolling around his house in Sangam Vihar when a few men sitting in a car stopped him and paid him to get them a pack of cigarettes. When he returned with it, they took him away. Sarma was lucky to have come back after two years. But months of slogging at a circus and facing violence at the hands of employers had left him unsmiling and reticent.
Another boy, 15-year-old Anuj had gone missing from near his house in February this year. He is back and happy but nothing is same. “He uses ji after everything he says. He won’t go out to play or agree to go to school. He is disoriented most times of the day. He never tells us how he reached Amritsar from the streets of Aman Vihar,” said Sunita Devi, his mother. The officials of a local NGO helping her out in the matter suspect it may be a case of drug abuse or even sexual exploitation. But the mother is unaware how to deal with the situation. She has not heard of family counseling provided by the state. Nor does she know anything about the man who held her son captive all this while.
“He sometimes asks me to let him speak with the man who kept him at his home for seven months. He tutored him at home but didn’t let him step out. He says he beat him sometimes. Who knows what was on his mind?” she said. Between January 1 and August 31 this year, 3,391 children have gone missing across 146 police stations in the city. Only 33% of them – 1127 – have been found. Most cases were in outer Delhi. Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) launched a network of 100 children homes last month to track missing children. It too has drawn a blank so far.
“Many times when these children come back, they are quite withdrawn. They stop talking and do not want to go to school. While there is a provision for family counseling, affected families are usually not taken for it,” said Soha Moitra, Regional Director (north) Child Rights and You. “There is absolutely no system for community counseling either. Communities should be sensitized and explained that they should not label the child. The western countries have a dedicated system for it,” she added.
She also blamed Delhi Police for not keeping pace with the movement of the traffickers who operate in a highly structured manner taking the child away to another state in no time. “The child is exposed to so much within 24 hours even as the police are still registering the FIR,” she said. She added that even the Juvenile Welfare Officers (JWOs) at every police station, who are supposed to handle the cases of children, are burdened with investigations into other cases.
The police, however, maintained that there is no delay in filing a formal complaint and their response is even quicker. DCP Crime Rajan Bhagat, spokesperson, said, “Not filining an FIR happened two years ago but no longer. The only delay is the time taken to write the FIR. But even before that process is complete, we alert our teams at railway stations, bus terminus and at state borders. The Standard Operating Procedure is followed.” He added that most police stations have two to four JWOs to handle such cases. Even other officials are sensitized and trained to deal with cases related to children.
Children missing from Delhi often land up in neighbouring states where they are made to work in the fields or forced into illegal trade. A Bachpan Bachao Andolan official remembers rescuing a child from the fields of Haryana recently. He had called back home once by finding an opportunity and gave his whereabouts to the family. “The police were informed of the development and the child was brought back. But his employer chased him down to the capital and demanded that he be given back to him as he had paid Rs 25,000 for him. He was arrested as soon as he uttered that confession,” said the official.
While the city is a hub of trafficking where children from different parts of the country are brought for illegal trades, children residing in the capital are stolen for bonded labour, child marriage and prostitution in other states. And it’s done within a few hours of abducting a child. “The police, however, spend up to two days in registering an FIR. There has been no control on the number of children going missing in the national capital. And I think it’s high time the Centre took notice and intervened. The new government should make the police accountable,” said Kailash Satyarthi, founder, BBA.
(Names of children and families have been changed to protect their identity)