They have been waiting for years to be united with their families. But for hundreds of missing children languishing in state-run institutions in the Capital, administrative red tape has resulted in a lost childhood.
The Department of Social Welfare routinely issues advertisements with photographs of missing children in various national dailies. Ironically, the department is aware of the addresses and whereabouts of the families of many of these children. Rules, however, prevent officials from actually taking these children back to their villages.
Gidda, 16, has spent the past seven years in various homes run by the Delhi government. His family lives in Cuttack, Orissa. The authorities know his family's whereabouts, down to the street on which they live. Yet, they have not been able to move beyond sending postcards or placing advertisements in the hope that someone from his family will claim him.
It's pretty much the same for Bunty, 13, of village Parasia in Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. The department estimates issuing at least a dozen advertisements for him, fewer than those issued for Gidda because Bunty came to the missing children's home at Alipur in 2003.
There are over 1,500 missing children in the 23 children's homes that the department runs in Delhi.
Earlier this week, the department put out an ad listing 26 missing children now lodged at the Alipur boys' homes. The department knows the street or village addresses of half these children; another three are from Delhi. Yet, department rules do not allow moving beyond ads.
"Every year we place advertisements in eight national dailies," a department official proudly proclaims. "After a child comes to us, we conduct investigations for three months and try to find his family by informing the police and sending postcards to his village with his or her picture. If we get a response to the correspondence, and the parents are too poor to come here, we send the child back with a police escort," he adds.
This has gone on for years. Officials admit that while the department has a budget for advertisements and correspondence, no representative is ever sent to the child's village. "The rules have no such provision," they add. So, while hundreds of children spend their childhood in the confines of state-run institutions year after year, the lack of a simple provision in the rules prevents the authorities from uniting them with their families.
"The rules need to be changed," said Vikram Srivastava, Manager (Development Support), Child Rights and You (CRY). "Even now if parents manage to reach Delhi they have to go to each and every children's home to look for their child. We need a centralised data base for all missing children," he added.
"I have just joined the department as director. I will take a closer look. We will try to eliminate all that is redundant," said Jaishri Raghuraman, Director, Social Welfare, Delhi. Raghuraman said she is keen on bringing changes but the Vidhan Sabha session is keeping her busy these days. "I will look into it after the session," she said.
Children like Sudama (13) of Sitapur and Dinesh (14) of Gwalior have spent years waiting for the rules to change. For them, patience is more a compulsion than a virtue.