A thousand Nitharis?

Sunita and her husband, Gangaram, live in a one-room thatched house with their two children in the slums of Neb Sarai in south Delhi. Life used to be abjectly poor; still, it was a happy family with three children. Until one of them, 14-year-old Rajesh, went missing in June 2007.

Since then, the parents have searched every possible corner of the city and knocked on every possible door that gave them any hope. Says Sunita: "Raju comes in my dreams. I see him crying, yearning to be with us. I always assure him that we will find him soon. And I wake up with horror and despair."

She works as a housemaid in the nearby kothis while Gangaram is jobless. He used to sell vegetables - the police took away his cart after the Delhi bomb blasts. Her son, who had a speaking disability, delivered water bottles at the cinema complex of PVR Saket on his rickshaw. On June 14, 2007, as usual, Rajesh went to deliver the water bottles. He never returned.

"Earlier, I used to work in five houses but ever since my son went missing I work in only two. Most of my time goes in search of my son. I will find him soon, one baba told me so." She has moved from one corner to another, police stations, NGOs, local leaders. Nothing has moved.

A baba told her that Rajesh is alive. Sunita visits the baba frequently; she pays Rs 2,000 of her hard-earned savings to this fake godman. She had also served him chicken and liquor on numerous occasions to please the gods. "Baba once asked me to go to Kolkata in search of Rajesh. I searched all over, but no miracle occurred." She says the ‘hawaldar' at the Neb Sarai police station abused her. "He refused to lodge a complaint and threatened to put me and my husband in jail. He hit me with his lathi."

Rajesh's is not an isolated case. Delhi is full of such tragic tales. Between December 2007 and 2008, 12,206 children went missing in Delhi. After the Nithari mass murders and rapes of children, a report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Action Research on Trafficking has shown that in any given year, on an average 44,000 children are reported missing all over India. Of them, 11,000 children remain untraced. The NHRC report mentions that studies conducted by official agencies and NGOs prove that several girls and boys run away from home attracted by the lure of big cities. Vulnerable, they fall prey to false promises and eventually end up as sex workers or bonded labourers/domestic help at dhabas, hotels, restaurants, tea shops and the unorganised sector, many of them hazardous, badly paid, in sub-human conditions, and without any social or physical protection. "Many of these children become victims of the organised begging/pick-pocketing/drug peddling racket. Most are trafficked and trapped in a vicious circle, and further abused, physically or sexually. Many of these children come from indigent families who either do not have access to authorities or whose complaints are not treated with due diligence," the report notes.

"My son Vikas went missing in 2001. We searched for years with no help from the police. Now I have lost all hope. I don't believe I will find him ever again," says Kamli, also living in the Neb Sarai slums. Various NGOs claim that there is an organised trafficking network in Sangam Vihar in south Delhi and Ghaziabad in UP. Two missing children came back to their house in Sangam Vihar and informed their parents that they were forcibly kept at a house in Ghaziabad. They gave the details of the location; the police claimed that they have rescued seven more children from there. "This is not an isolated incident. Several such stories have been narrated by the children who escaped from these places but no action has been taken on their tip off. Parents of missing children have sometimes identified ‘dubious' individuals, but nothing tangible has been done," points out Krinna Shah, employed with Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) in Delhi, which works for children rights.

"Everyone knows how the police treat the poor. This shouldn't come as a surprise. There are many cases that are not even reported even when parents have given the names of the suspect. The police attitude is that of laxity and indifference. For them, missing children are not a priority," says Reena Banerjee, secretary, Nav Shristi, an NGO. She says that the police are always reluctant to share information on the number and status of missing children. She filed an RTI application seeking information on missing children in 10 districts of Delhi. Only seven police stations replied while the rest kept delaying it; one of them demanded Rs 12,565 for the information. "After all, we are asking for routine information under the RTI Act - not something related to national security," quips Banerjee.

This cold blooded insensitivity is entrenched in the establishment. Activists claim that the figures on missing children are not comprehensive and numerous such cases go unreported. However, it is hoped, that a serious guideline by the Allahabad High Court might help. A historic judgement by Justice Amar Saran came after Vishnu Dayal Sharma moved the court after his son Krishna Gopal went missing on February 22, 2005. The court noted: "There are so many poor and resourceless persons who are not politically important (since they may not be a vote bank, disunited migrants as they are), they lack the wherewithal to approach the high court and have been routinely visiting police stations when their son, daughter or near and dear ones go missing. They are cruelly rebuffed by the police which are engaged in other important matters and do not want to inflate their crime record. They unfortunately lack the wealth to set the police machinery in motion in matters which was the foremost duty of the police to investigate."

The court, after hearing Sharma's plea, sought crucial details from the UP government on the number of missing children. The UP report disclosed that from 2000 to April 2008, there were 7,659 cases. The police claimed that 5,965 children have either been found; but the fate of the rest remains in the dark. The court asked both the state and central government to work in tandem to solve the cases of missing children. After this direction, the police and judiciary have begun to act. The UP police claimed that they have pasted two sets of posters of missing children, as per the court order. One has phone numbers of an authorised body and other with contact information of the parents. How this has helped remains a conjecture.

In this historic judgement, the court directed the state to set up a computerised data bank of all school-going children in the age group of 6-14 years, which could include:

the digitalised photographs of the child (for which purpose a budget of Rs 12.7 crore has been earmarked for 2007-2008 and a budget of Rs 5 crore for 2008-2009); 

 the class in which the child is studying;

the name of his school; 

the place of schooling. This information could further be updated every year to indicate:

whether the child was promoted at the end of the year;

whether he/she has dropped out from the school and in the event of change of school or location; what is the new school and location. The principals or other authorities can be asked to ensure that data with respect to each child were loaded on the computer.

However, there are major loopholes. Says PC Sharma, member, NHRC, and chairman of the committee that brought out the report on missing children: "There is no coordinated effort from the police as no FIR is filed and only an entry is made in the general diary which is routinely ignored. There is no central coordination agency; how many children go missing and are traced back remains a mystery. The system is yet to evolve to meet the challenges. At present, the issue remains a neglected, low-priority intervention area for everyone other than those who have lost their children." He feels that missing children should be a top priority because the majority are condemned to end up being trafficked for sexual abuse, as bonded labour, or among other sub-human and degrading ‘occupations'.

Krinna says: "I remember the incident when a Bangalore couple saw the picture of their missing son in a TV programme which mentioned that the concerned people should contact the police at the earliest. When these parents went to meet the authorities they said that they had no clue of where the picture came from. This is like the same story repeated ad nauseum. This is pathetic."

After the sinister blood-letting and sexual perversion inside that rich man's house in Nithari, one had thought missing children will become a national issue. Perhaps it's because most of them are stunningly poor. So no one cares. Neither the governments, nor the police, nor the courts. Except the mother and the father, who wait, with despair and - no hope.

BOX; Slaves of the Ringmaster

The circus is a rage among children in India. Even adults go for it in small towns. Hundreds of people throng the visiting circus oblivious of the fact that many underage children who are performing (or women) are reportedly kept in abysmal circumstances, brutally beaten, sexually assaulted, kept like slaves and underpaid. Most, especially girls, are trafficked from the poorest areas of Nepal by agents of circus owners with the temptation of a better life. In some cases, children are sold by their poor parents on training contracts at a stipend of Rs 100 per month for 10 years. Once trafficked, they are sent to different circus outfits across the country so that they remain untraced.  

Hundreds of children are trafficked every year by a nexus of circus owners, traffickers, police and local politicians. In a rescue operation in June 2008, Childline with the Esther Benjamin Memorial Foundation (EBMF), Nepal, and other NGOs, successfully rescued 20 children from the Rajmahal Circus in Akola, Maharashtra. "The team met six girls rescued by EBMF and Childline from the Rajmahal Circus in Raipur in August last year. The girls said that there were more children below 18 years in the circus and the work conditions were exploitative. During their training they are beaten with wet ropes. These children reach the circus via agents. Sometimes, there are training bonds signed between the parents and the circus owner wherein the circus owner pays Rs 5000 - 7000 to the parents," informs Komal Ganotra of Childline.

Childline activists revealed that children, especially girls, reported cases of sexual abuse and rape. Some children who tried to run away were stripped and beaten on their private parts. On the role of the police, Philip Homes, Founder/Director of EBMF, said in an email interview with Hardnews, "While rescuing children in January last year from the New Raj Kamal Circus at Hatta near Gorakhpur, the local head of the police was uncooperative and acted illegally. I witnessed circus personnel being transported up and down the road on the back of police motor bikes and meetings between the circus staff and police within the police compound that we were excluded from. You can see the film of that rescue - including of the uncooperative police officer - on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTs1NQOS9_I)."

Since 2004, EBMF has rescued 350 children and women. "Our survey of 2002 found 230 children under the age of 14 in 30 circuses. The data was collected through ‘undercover research'. We need to repeat our research; but I guess the figure now could be 50-100. That still leaves the issue of older girls - over 14 - who were trafficked as children and are still working as bonded
labour. Some of these are technically children if you accept the UN classification of a child under the age of 18," said Homes.