For the past two years, Gurgaon police have been earning plaudits for rescuing a record number of “missing” children and rehabilitating them, saving them from a harrowing life of exploitation and abuse.
But a Hindustan Times investigation found gaps in the police records and procedure, indicating the campaign may have been stage-managed to inflate numbers.
Police in this burgeoning city of multi-national company offices, factories, high-rise houses, villages and slums say they rescued 1,500 kids since 2015 under Operation Muskaan, a nationwide programme to rescue and rehabilitate missing children.
The district child welfare committee (CWC) fears the numbers are exaggerated to meet targets.
When HT visited the addresses of 27 “rescued” children, all of them turned out to be fake entries. Some of the families in those addresses said they were living there for two decades. Others said they had never heard or rented their properties to anyone with names that appeared in the police records.
Sample this. Police records show a 13-year-old boy was rescued near Wazirpur Chowk in Gurgaon. The entry says his home is under Dwarka’s Palam police station.
An old couple said they have been living there for 20 years and didn’t know any boy by the name that HT found in the police records, or his father. None of the neighbours recognised the child or the family.
Another entry reveals a Muslim boy was rescued by Kherki Daula police station on July 8, 2015, handed to the CWC, and restored to his parents the same day.
When HT visited the house, the family residing there for the past 10 years denied knowing any child by that name, let alone being rescued by police.
“We are a Hindu family but the name given here is of a Muslim boy and we have never rented this house to anybody with the given name,” the home owner said.
Also, HT found that police didn’t record first information reports in any cases of child labour, as required by law. Neither police nor the CWC conducted any inquiry about the rescued children.
Gurgaon police dismissed the allegations, saying all guidelines were followed during the operation.
“Those rescued were working as child labourers. We have not picked any child. Why will we do such unethical work?” said assistant commissioner of police Anil Kumar, the nodal officer for Muskaan.
But the state crime branch had also questioned Gurgaon police’s account.
KP Singh, then director general of police (crime branch), wrote last year to the Gurgaon police commissioner, objecting to the false information furnished by the district police.
He asked the police commissioner to take immediate action and prepare a report of the units involved in the wrongdoing, especially uploading fake information on the police website’s “Track the Missing Child” platform about missing children.
“The wrong practice has corrupted the whole data and has created doubt about the excellent honest work done by some of the units. I am afraid the government of India will not attach credence to any such corrupted information uploaded on the portal,” says the letter from Singh, who is now the director general of police, Haryana.
Singh defended the police operation when HT sought his response.
“There was a misinterpretation by Gurgaon police units working on the operation regarding missing children found in the railway station and other places. It was later explained to them and was rectified on the portal. There is a gap between the CWC and police data as they don’t compile data for the operation whereas the police do.”
Former police commissioner NS Virk, who is now IG Rohtak, was not available for comments.
The Union home ministry launched Operation Muskaan in July 2015 across the country after a similar month-long campaign, called Operation Smile, in January to rescue and rehabilitate missing children.
Haryana police claimed to have rescued 4,824 children under Operation Muskaan in July last year, of which Gurgaon police topped the list with 1,057 rescues. That means 5.35% of the 19,742 children rescued in the entire country under Muskaan were from Gurgaon.
People questioned Gurgaon police’s methods and intent of the operation.
Activists, who don’t wish to be named, said the ineffective tracking of children, lack of follow-up, poor database and gaps in records have hurt the overall fight against child trafficking and exploitation.
They said a child goes missing in India every eight minutes and rescuing children is of primary importance, especially in a situation where several agencies fighting for child rights lack coordination.
Some of the children and parents alleged kids were picked up randomly from parks, bus stands, even shops near their houses and shown as missing.
A 13-year-old boy said he was picked up in front of his slum near Kanhai village, taken to the Sector 40 police station, detained for a few hours and then released after his father paid a bribe of Rs 2,000.
The district CWC said police made no reports of the rescued children, a requirement under the juvenile justice act. It corroborated allegations about a huge variation in the number of rescued children in police records and those produced before the committee.
Details of the rescue weren’t maintained in the general dairy of police stations.
“A number of cases brought to us as child rescue were returned as these did not meet the norms stipulated by the government,” CWC chairperson Shakuntala Devi said.
The CWC alleged none of the 177 child labourers that police said to have rescued last year were produced before state authorities. Police also did not provide details of the rescue.
Devi said children were picked up randomly as police wanted to record the highest number of rescues in India. “I would not call it Operation Muskaan, there were only tears among the children and parents.”
The rescued children were not evaluated for vulnerability, even if they were from other states, and were handed to parents in a hurry, another activist associated with Muskaan alleged.
Another anomaly listed by the CWC was that police didn’t take any steps to book alleged employers under the anti-child labour act.
Also, case-specific information wasn’t allegedly shared with the deputy labour commissioner of Gurgaon to recover compensation stipulated by law for the rehabilitation of these children.
Efforts to contact Gurgaon labour commissioner Pankaj Agarwal for his comments proved futile.
“Sensitising and training personnel involved in the rescue and rehabilitation process is also extremely crucial in providing a safe environment to these children,” said Soha Moitra, regional director (northern region), Child Rights and You.
Reports show many police personnel didn’t receive adequate specialised training to deal with children rescued from the streets, factories, bus and train stations and parks.
According to the National Human Rights Commission, up to 40,000 children are abducted in the country every year, of which at least 11,000 remain untraced.
The Muskaan initiative was to stop a chronic menace in the country. Thousands of missing children are often drugged, beaten and forced to beg every day on the streets, in what has become a multi-million rupee industry controlled by human-trafficking gangs.
1 Registration of FIR in under sections of kidnapping and abduction, considering it a cognizable offence
2 Child should be produced before the Child Welfare Committee (CWC)
3 If parents not found or during the pendency of inquiry, the CWC should place the child in a children’s home/shelter home
4 CWC should generate a report over the vulnerability of the family to the inquiry
5 All efforts must be made to restore the child to his/her family 6 Rehabilitate the child
Operation Muskaan II (July 1-31) 524 children rescued by Gurgaon police
(*Govt yet to compile all-India data for 2016)
40,000 children are abducted in the country every year
11,000 remain untraced (National Human Rights Commission)
According to data tabled in the Lok Sabha in May, over 22,000 children went missing in Delhi in the past three years. Thousands of missing children are often drugged, beaten and forced to beg on the streets, in what has become a multi-million rupee industry controlled by humantrafficking gangs.
He said the police detained him for a few hours and took Rs 2,000 from his father before releasing him.