ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Do Children Matter?

Finding missing children is a low priority for the State.

The proceedings of the public interest litigation (PIL) currently before the Supreme Court (SC) on the subject of missing children in India are a graphic illustration of the State’s apathy towards this section of society. On getting no response despite its repeated orders asking all the states and union territories for a status report on the issue, the Court was moved to comment that “they don’t care and children don’t matter at all”. It then ordered the chief secretaries of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Odisha to appear personally for failing to respond earlier. When only two of the top bureaucrats (Goa and Odisha) appeared, the SC threatened to issue non-bailable arrest warrants against the other three who finally appeared. It is evident that despite the enormous number of missing and untraced children, the administrative machinery and the police force of states do not take the problem seriously. In fact, this case is not the first time that the SC has had to intervene in a matter of great import. It had earlier ­issued detailed directions in its order of 14 November 2002 (Horilal vs Commissioner of Delhi Police) to be followed by ­investigating police officers in all states in the case of kidnapped minor girls.

The bulk of the missing children come from poor and illiterate or semi-literate backgrounds and are trafficked into child labour, illegal activities, prostitution, begging and domestic service. In many cases, the child runs away from an abusive home only to find himself/herself in the clutches of a criminal gang. This is also true of children abandoned due to economic destitution of the parents. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 60,000 children went missing in 2011 and of these 22,000 remain untraced. In fact, the petitioner before the Court, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, used the right to information (RTI) and NCRB data in its report Missing Children in India to show that between 2008 and 2010 a total of 1,17,480 children went missing from 392 districts and 41,546 remain untraced.

Worse, child rights activists find there are major discrepancies in official data from different agencies. Add to this the all-round acknowledgement that not all cases of missing children are registered (NGOs say only 10% make it to the official records). In the absence of a legal definition of missing children, each state treats this problem differently. Barring Delhi, where if a missing child has not been found even after 24 hours it is treated as a case of kidnapping, complaints of missing ­children are not registered as first information reports (FIRs). Instead, the complaint is recorded in the general station diary and publicised in the police notice without sustained fol­low-up investigation.

The rather arbitrary manner in which the complaints as well as the entire issue are treated explains why India does not have a national database on missing children. Child rights activists say this is the foundational requirement for any kind of coordination between state governments and different agencies in tracking missing children. As in other forms of trafficking or even in cases of missing women, the emphasis has to be on quick recall and interchange of information between different entities in order to prevent the victim from falling through the cracks. In its petition, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan has asked for the term “missing children” to be legally defined and for direction to the centre, the states and union territories to draft a national action plan, prepare a national database and treat the kidnapping or trafficking of children as a non-bailable and cognisable offence.

The recently released Justice J S Verma Committee report says authentic figures of missing children are unavailable due to the “complicity of law enforcement agencies”. It points out that the advisories issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 30 January 2012 show that district magistrates ­responsible for carrying out a census of missing children in the district and the police are apathetic and do not do so. Ironically, the MHA and the Ministry of Women and Child Deve­lopment produced before the SC all the circulars, advisories and guidelines they have issued. Obviously there is negligible effect at the ground level. Missing children are not a priority.

While all these are extremely significant and necessary requirements, the issue boils down once again – as in the case of crimes against all marginalised sections and towards women – to the attitude of the police. A large number of testimonies from poor parents indicate that they meet with scant sympathy or even attention when they go to report missing children (the infamous Nithari case of 2006 is an example). The primary tendency is to believe that the child has run away. The indifference of the criminal justice system and all its components, including the police, towards children who are kidnapped, trafficked and sold into virtual slavery tells us yet again how little Indian society cares for those who are the most helpless.

 

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