Police in four states — Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — knew all along that children were regularly going missing from Nithari, and yet did not take any notice of the information.
While the officers sitting hundreds of kilometers away could not be expected to help probe a crime outside their jurisdiction, there was no effort to explore whether the disappearances could be linked to one of India’s many child-trafficking cartels that snatch at least 30,000 children each year.
Critics say it is a perfect example of a near-breakdown of coordination between police forces in even neighbouring states — even after the information was shared on an electronic, multi-state database formed precisely for this purpose.
Western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are among the areas most notorious for trafficking, experts say.
"Nithari gives us an opportunity to probe into the density of children who go missing every year. There are possibilities that many might have been trafficked," said a United Nations official in India who declined to be named.
At least 38 children have gone missing in Nithari, and many of them are believed to have been sexually assaulted and killed, allegedly by main suspects Moninder Singh Pandher and his servant Surendra Singh.
When repeated complaints with the Noida Police led nowhere, the grieving parents of several children went to lodge the complaints with Delhi Police.
"When we saw that no one was paying heed to our complaints in Noida, we went to the missing person squad in Delhi," said Ashok Kumar, father of Satyendra, who disappeared in Nithari and has now been confirmed as dead.
Delhi Police uploaded the information about all the children on the police database Zonal Integrated Police Network (ZIPNET).
The database was launched in 2002 for sharing real time information, including online transmission of data and documents regarding crime, criminals, missing persons, and stolen vehicles in the four states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.
The complaints are also registered manually by Delhi Police in a logbook. There is a separate register maintained for persons missing from other states. Such complaints are either made by the local police or the family itself.
But police use the database — created with the main aim of inter-state cooperation — just as a mini google search about cases in their jurisdiction.
So no notices were sent out to police stations or check posts and no gangs known to indulge in child trafficking came on police vigil.
"We generally monitor the information relevant to our state. We have solved a few cases also with the help of it. We do not concentrate on crimes taking place somewhere else, as it does not fall under our jurisdiction, but if we get an important lead we do inform the other states," said Ajit Singh, Rajasthan’s inspector-general for crime.
The ZIPNET has linkage centres at Delhi, Karnal, Meerut, Gurgaon and Jaipur. An inter-state coordination meeting is also held twice a year to look into the crime trends of the neighbouring states.
"ZIPNET is not only limited to missing persons. There are other aspects to it like motor vehicle thefts, stolen mobile phones, most wanted criminals and terrorists. It is not binding upon the police force of other states to analyse a trend from the available data," said Neeraj Thakur, New Delhi’s deputy commissioner of police for crime.
Other officers were not so sure.
"I am not ready for the answer. I will have to look into it,” Bua Singh, the director-general of Uttar Pradesh police, told the Hindustan Times.