As many as 38 children — skeletal remains of many of whom have allegedly been found over the past few days — are said to have disappeared over two years in Noida’s Nithari village. But the number is merely symptomatic of a widely prevalent situation.
A staggering 45,000 children — one every 4,200-odd households — go missing in India every year, according to figures compiled by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). NGOs working in the field estimate only 10 per cent of all cases are registered with the police, so the actual numbers could be several times higher. Kiran Bedi, director general, Bureau of Police Research and Development, conceded that the "numbers of missing children reported on child helplines were much more than the figures in police records."
According to NHRC’s report, first published in 2004, most children are reported missing from the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa where, it says, the "trafficking of children has become a highly profitable business". Traffickers target low-income families, and their tactics range from drugging and abduction to persuasion and deception, the report says.
PM Nair of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), who worked on the NHRC study, says most missing children remain untraced because the police do not try, and their stories are not taken up in the media.
Kailash Satharay of the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan said most missing children came from Dalit, tribal and poor Muslim families, who do not have the means or visibility to pressure the police or galvanise the media.
According to the report, cases of child abuse or paedophilia come low down on the police’s list of priorities. Eighty per cent of policemen did not feel tracing a missing child was a priority; 54 per cent thought it was not even worth the effort, the study showed.
Bedi explained that Indian policemen are taught to investigate only cognizable offences because they show up in annual crime figures. In most cases — like in Noida — all that the police do is make a daily diary entry, and issue the complainant a non-cognizable report, telling them a "case" has been registered.
"It is called burking in police slang," Bedi said.
There is, however, a ray of hope. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, governments have recently issued diktats telling the police to investigate each case of missing children. And Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury says, "We will bring changes in the law to end the story of the missing child. We have sought changes in the curriculum at the National Police Academy and police training schools."